Karl Morris: The spirit of Jacklin and Nicklaus

Our resident golf psychologist re-examines a famous Ryder Cup moment.

JUST imagine what must have been going through his mind. Here he is on the final green of the biggest of all golf tournaments, the Ryder Cup. It has all come down to his match. Just the man he is playing and himself to decide the outcome. The match hanging in the balance. A win and the match is won by the USA. 

His opponent races his putt past and is left with a tricky four-foot putt to tie the game and the match. 
What would you do in that situation with two nations holding their collective breath as to the outcome? 

In one of the most famous gestures of sportsmanship in all of sport Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin’s putt. 

His words to Jacklin sum up everything good about the game of golf. “I don’t think you would have missed it but I wasn’t going to give you the opportunity.” 

It was the first draw in Ryder Cup history, and the United States retained the trophy.

The tournament was marred by considerable acrimony and unsportsmanlike behavior by players on both sides. 

Britain’s captain Eric Brown had instructed his players not to search for the opposition’s ball if it ended up in the rough. 

American Ken Still, in the first-day foursomes, had deliberately stood too close to Maurice Bembridge as he was putting.

During one of the fourballs on the second day, both captains had to come out and calm down the warring players. This led to Nicklaus conceding Jacklin’s final putt with the knowledge that the competition would end in a draw.

To me the actions of Nicklaus say so much about him as a golfer and as a person. He was so secure in himself that he felt that the game was far more important than any single victory for himself or his American team. 

Some people at the time were heavily critical of Nicklaus and his concession but the march of time has proven it to be a remarkable act by a remarkable man.

It would be extremely trite to even suggest that golf is ‘just a game’ or that it doesn’t matter but what I do see in so many people these days is a loss of true perspective on what the game is and what it means to them. 

So many people play under a cloud of tension and anxiety because this putt or this tournament means so much to them that they cannot perform to their true ability. 

I love the story about Annika Sorenstam and her coach Pia Nilsson prior to the final round of what turned out to be Annika’s first Major victory. 

Apparently Sorenstam was extremely nervous and terrified of making a fool of herself out on the course. 

Pia apparently asked her ‘how important is this really?’ At first Annika replied in the way that most of us would by saying: “It’s everything!”

Pia replied and asked her how important it would be if they floated above the course and they could look down on all that was happening in New York. Then how important it would look if they viewed the whole of America. And then in fact if they viewed the whole of the world? 
Instinctively Annika got the point that was being made by her wise coach and utilised the power of perspective. 

It is not about dismissing the importance of results but just to understand if your perspective is putting you under so much pressure that you can’t perform close to your ability. 

That day at Birkdale the greatest golfer of all time demonstrated a sense of perspective that although Jack would always give his utmost to win it was never a case of life or death. He played the game of golf.

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