John McGrath

John McGrath: For Nicklaus, fire still burns when it comes to golf and all it offers

A reader didn’t care for my recent reference to U.S. Open week at Chambers Bay as “magical.”

In the comments section under the story posted online, he wrote: “The only thing magical will be when all the narcissistic, geriatric old men who think this is a ‘sport’ go away back to their retirement homes and quit clogging up this town ...

“Nothing important ever happened because of golf. Ever.”

Where to begin? By dignifying the absurd argument about golf not being a sport with a return of that sorry lob? Not going there. Those who don’t think golf is a sport have never played it, and if they’ve never played it, nothing I say will make sense.

As for golf’s appeal to geriatrics, it’s true. Old men — and old women — are among the sport’s most enthusiastic participants.

How is this bad? Just because you reach a certain age — 65, 70, 75, whatever — does that mean your competitive sports options must be reduced to shuffleboard and bridge?

But it was the “nothing important ever happened because of golf” nonsense that deserves a rebuttal by an observer more qualified to extol the sport’s societal benefits than I am.

Jack Nicklaus.

En route to Asia, Nicklaus stopped by Chambers Bay on Tuesday before accompanying his wife, Barbara, to the Museum of Glass for her acceptance of the USGA’s 2015 Bob Jones Award. Earlier on Tuesday, Nicklaus hit the opening ball on the new nine-hole extension of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood.

Nicklaus was drawn to the project by a close friend, Ken Still.

“Kenny called me, oh, I don’t know, five or six years ago,” said Nicklaus, “and he told me, ‘Jack, I need your help. We’ve got nine holes of golf out here, and it’s playing 40,000 rounds a year. We need more golf. All these veterans, they’re unbelievable, and I want to help them.

“ ‘I want you to design another nine holes,’  Nicklaus recalled Still asking him, “ ‘and fix up the other nine.’ Well, we’ve raised money. We’ve done a lot of things. We’ve gotten the nine holes built.”

Nicklaus met three Wounded Warriors at the veterans’ course, including Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry.

“All three outdrove me,” Nicklaus continued. “It was a very interesting thing to watch these guys that have come back after giving to us and to help them try to re-enter society. Golf has been a big, big booster to a lot of the guys that have post-traumatic syndrome.

“I remember one guy came up to me and said, ‘Jack, you don’t know what this has done for me. I unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide three times, and then they got me out here and got me into the game of golf and I wouldn’t even dream about doing it now. I love this game – it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’ ”

The idea of golf as therapy for wounded veterans, Nicklaus pointed out, is not new.

“There used to be a lot of golf courses at V.A. hospitals in areas around the country,” he said. “The government stopped funding those. This is privately funded here.”

Nicklaus wants to assist in the construction of additional veterans’ courses “because we’ve got a lot of boys coming back that need our help.”

Helping disabled veterans adjust upon their return to the country they gave their bodies to defend: Is that not important?

Nicklaus doesn’t drive the ball as far as he did over the two decades he was the world’s dominant player. At 75, his association with the game is strictly ancillary as a paragon of international golf-course design.

But the motivation that drove him to win a record 18 major tournaments is still there and always will be there, because that’s another thing about golf: For those few who’ve mastered it — and those many others chasing the dream — the fire never dies.

Nicklaus wondered aloud Tuesday where the 2016 U.S. Open would be played.

“Oakmont,” an interview-room moderator told him, referring to the Pittsburgh-area course where Nicklaus upset hometown favorite Arnold Palmer in the 1962 U.S. Open.

Asked Nicklaus with a smile: “Can I get in?”

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