Different greats take different stances

  • Follow Scott Michaux

Thirty-five years is a long time for a denizen of South Florida to sit atop the heap.

Eugene "Mercury" Morris and the 1972 Dolphins should heed Jack Nicklaus, who is gracious about the pursuit of his records.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Eugene "Mercury" Morris and the 1972 Dolphins should heed Jack Nicklaus, who is gracious about the pursuit of his records.

It's a long time to be the standard of excellence.

It's a long time to be the target for every wannabe icon.

It's a long time to be magnanimous.

That last point should lead you to realize this isn't referring to the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Petty resentfulness of anybody who might share their perfect pedestal is standard operating procedure for the 'Fins.

Jack Nicklaus, however, has handled his place atop golf's hierarchy with dignity and grace ever since he chased his own grail of perfection in 1972. With Tiger Woods closing in on golf's all-time milestones so rapidly that even Nicklaus concedes it's inevitable, the Golden Bear, who has lived in Palm Beach County since the mid-1960s, could teach a lesson to his longtime neighbors cheering a little too desperately against the New England Patriots today in Super Bowl XLII.

"I don't know why the Dolphins would worry about somebody else," Nicklaus said Thursday. "They had a great record. They were a great team in 1972 and were 17-0. They did what they did in their time, and it was great."

Being great in his time is a subject Nicklaus knows as much as anyone. He was one of the most enduring sports figures from what might have been the finest era in American sports history. Legends and greatness seemed to be defined at every turn during a stretch from 1971-75. The Dolphins didn't hold any kind of monopoly on that.

It was a time when Muhammad Ali's second reign dazzled broadcast television, with his epic trilogy with Joe Frazier, the Ken Norton fights and the sensational "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman.

Hank Aaron entranced the nation with his chase of Babe Ruth's home run record, eclipsing the mark in April 1974 when baseball was transitioning between the dynasties of Reggie Jackson and the Swingin' A's to Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine.

Secretariat became a mythic creature by winning the Triple Crown in 1973, etching a permanent place in the memory of everyone who was lifted in their living rooms watching his 31-length domination of the Belmont Stakes.

Before the Dolphins would embark on their road to perfection in 1972, Nicklaus pursued an impossible quest of his own. He tied Bobby Jones' record of 13 career majors with victories in the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open in 1972, and the reigning PGA champion had his eyes on winning the Grand Slam.

"When I went into every season, that was my goal," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus -- in his prime at 32, the same age Woods is now -- was thwarted by a one-stroke loss at Muirfield in the British Open to Lee Trevino, who chipped in from behind the 71st green to secure his second consecutive claret jug.

Oakland Hills -- the site of the 1972 PGA Championship, just as it will be this August -- planned to erect a 12-foot fence all the way around the property to protect from the mad crush of interest that Nicklaus pursuing a final leg of the Grand Slam would have created.

"I lost the British Open by a shot, and the people at Oakland Hills said, 'Man, you saved us a lot of money, though we wouldn't have minded spending it,' " Nicklaus said. "It was going to be absolutely impossible."

Nothing, however, seemed impossible in that era. Nicklaus backed up his career-best seven-win 1972 season with seven more in 1973, including the PGA Championship that put him alone atop the major winners list. He eventually finished with 20 major titles -- 18 professional -- that set a bar nobody ever thought could be cleared until Woods came along.

"I did what I did in my time, and I think my record is what it is," Nicklaus said. "Could it have been better? Probably. Could it have been worse? Absolutely. But it is what it is."

But unlike the Dolphins, Nicklaus doesn't fret over the possibility -- which many consider as likely as the Patriots beating the New York Giants tonight -- that Woods will catch his target and become the new standard upon which future generations can fixate.

"I haven't really thought much about Tiger breaking my record or not breaking my record, although it does get asked about quite a bit," Nicklaus said. "He's certainly young enough and probably should and probably will break my record. If he does, more power to him."

Some might claim that to be disingenuous. Athletes spend their careers competing to be the best, and it's human nature to hope records will last forever.

But that's almost never the case. The world moves on, the standards change and the bar gets pushed higher. All athletes can do is the best that they can in the time that they have and be proud of that. Whatever happens after that is out of their control.

Yet it can never diminish any claims to greatness already staked. That's the advice Nicklaus would give to the Dolphins. He isn't worried about his legacy if Tiger wins 19 majors. Why should the Dolphins be concerned if the Patriots win 19 games?

"I don't think it makes any difference, just like I don't think it makes any difference if the Patriots win this weekend," Nicklaus said. "The Dolphins still had their 17-0. It's their record. Just like I have my record, and it will stand for whatever it is. And if somebody breaks it, I think that's great.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens this weekend and wait and see what happens with Tiger."

Thirty-five years is certainly a long time to remain magnanimous. Today would be a good day for the 1972 Dolphins to start.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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