"It may sound silly, but golf was never all that important to me," Jack Nicklaus said a couple of weeks ago when cornered into a conference call to discuss his upcoming milestone.
Realizing how strange that might sound coming from the mouth of a man who set the standard in golfing achievement and makes his fortune building courses around the globe, the Golden Bear graciously elaborated.
"The reason I turned pro was to be the best I could be at a game," he said. "I also put that as my second priority. I always looked at my family as my first priority and my family took precedent over golf."
Nicklaus has aged gracefully watching in fascination as Tiger Woods, 34, has pursued a lifelong quest to surpass his record of 18 major championships and wrest the title of greatest golfer of all time. Woods would be better served if he refocused his energy to pursuing the example Nicklaus set off the course instead.
Even before his private life fell into scandal and shame, Woods woefully lagged behind Nicklaus outside the ropes. Nicklaus -- who'll celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Barbara, in July -- has been a model husband and father. And in dealing with the press and his fans, few have ever been better.
Nobody in the history of the game ever experienced more success on the biggest stages. Nobody ever endured more heartbreaks either, as his 19 major runner-up finishes exceeded his win total.
But Nicklaus never pouted after the defeats. He never stalked off after a terse two-minute interview after losing. He once was spotted playing mixed doubles tennis with his wife just hours after Lee Trevino edged him out at the 1972 British Open at Muirfield.
It was this healthy approach to the game he loved that stood out as much as his dominance.
"I played a game because I loved it, and I played it for the sake of the game," he said. "I played it because when the competition, the charge that I got from it excited me to be really good at something. It excited me to be able to focus on something -- something to work at, something that filled my life with excitement."
Nicklaus was always driven to win the majors because Bobby Jones had referred to them as "the lasting things in a golfer's life." But he wasn't obsessed with setting the bar. He never even considered Jones' standard of 13 majors until a reporter mentioned it to him after winning his 10th major.
Woods has had his sights fixed on Nicklaus' number since he was a child.
"I never had a focus on a number," Nicklaus said. "It was just to be able to play and to be the best at what I did. That's basically the way I handled my career. I think the press handles it a lot different today. The press today is basically a statistic press."
Nicklaus has always meant more to golf than statistics. And he's meant much more to the folks around the game. Any writer who has had the pleasure of covering Nicklaus can rattle off at least a handle of stories where his graciousness exceeded his reputation. He never has "big-timed" anyone.
One of my favorite small moments happened at the 2005 Presidents Cup. After finishing his press conference on Saturday, Nicklaus detoured from heading back to his team to my seat where I was writing on deadline.
"How did Ohio State do today?" he asked, looking over my shoulder to check out the day's college football scores. Then he stuck around a few more minutes to sign the many 5-pound notes that reporters had collected from his final major performance a few months earlier.
"I always felt like if I treated you fairly, you would treat me fairly," he said. "And I feel the same way with everybody I try to meet. I don't care who it is."
These are the traits that athletes today should try harder to emulate.
As for turning 70 -- "yeech!" he said at the thought -- Nicklaus isn't really too troubled.
He's still enjoying what he calls life's adventure, and being an icon hasn't gotten in the way.
"We've always tried to live a fairly normal life," he said. "I never thought that being me was that big a deal."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.
JACK NICKLAUS BY THE NUMBERS
73: PGA Tour victories
70: His age today
18: Wins in majors (6 Masters, 5 PGA, 4 U.S. Open, 3 British Open)
1: Wife, Barbara (they'll be married 50 years this summer)