POLAND - Sometimes you need to get close to a legend to acquire some understanding of what made the man so great at his chosen sport.
When golf icon Jack Nicklaus entered a room at The Lake Club on Wednesday prior to a press conference promoting the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley's "An Evening with Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam," the first tendency was to stare. After all, at the opposite end of the same room stood a famous picture of Nicklaus lifting a putter into the air with his left hand after sinking a putt on his way to winning the 1986 Masters. Now here was the same man - almost three decades older - walking among a handful of people as if he was one of them.
Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus' long-time rival and one of the people who made the PGA must-see television, has always been beloved because he related to the common guy. Nicklaus trailed Palmer in popularity, mainly because he was viewed as more distant and not as charismatic.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Jack Nicklaus, right, and Annika Sorenstam field questions from the media at The Lake Club on Wednesday afternoon.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Lake Club owner Ed Muransky, right, points out a few features of the golf course to golf legend Jack Nicklaus on Wednesday.
The Nicklaus who sat in front of reporters along with Sorenstam seemed anything but a country-club type. He was at ease in answering questions, often going into discussions of several minutes on topics like why changes to the golf ball have had more impact on the game than any of the other technological changes.
Now you could see why Nicklaus was such a calm, cool assassin in almost every tournament in which he competed. It's why he's the career leader in major PGA titles (18), a number that's slowly creeping out of the reach for the injury-plagued Tiger Woods, who has 14.
Nicklaus commanded the room in a way that he did tournaments from Augusta, Ga., to the links courses of Great Britain. He was never more prepared than when asked a question about Woods, a topic he can't escape.
"You have a young man who is probably as talented as anyone that has ever played the game," Nicklaus said. "He's had my record on his closet door since he was a little kid, and I still believe that he will probably break that.
"Then again, there are so many things that happen in everybody's life. He right now is being robbed of some of his prime years because of his health. Is his health going to allow him to do that? I don't know. I was very fortunate. I played a long time and really had no injuries that were significant."
Besides health, another reason why Woods may never break Nicklaus' record is because of the depth of talent on the PGA Tour. The game has spread globally in ways that Nicklaus and Palmer never could have imagined in the 1960s, making a tournament win a more demanding challenge than it was decades ago.
"There are so many guys that are so talented," Nicklaus said. "An average year for me would be to win five, six or seven tournaments. Johnny Miller won eight or nine one year. There's such a large talent pool today that the opportunity to win is so seldom if you're not an exceptional player like Tiger."
Nicklaus then looked at Sorenstam, who was seated to his right, and asked her how many LPGA wins she would achieve on a normal year. She matter-of-factly said, "11 one year and then 13."
Nicklaus looked shocked for a second and then said, "Wow."
Sorenstam finished her career with 73 LPGA wins, one more than Nicklaus' 72 PGA titles. Sorenstam won 10 major championships.
Sorenstam dominated at a time when the LPGA Tour was expanding on a global basis. She retired in 2008 at the age of 38 to start a family, cutting short a career that might have included more titles.
"We have depth today," said Sorenstam of the current state of the LPGA. "When Se-Ri Pak came on the tour in 1999, she was the first South Korean lady golfer to come out. Winning the LPGA Championship and U.S. Open the same year started a peak of what we're seeing now. It is a global game, and I think it's going to continue being that."
Nicklaus and Sorenstam have seen many equipment changes since early in their careers. Nicklaus said without hesitation that the biggest change to golf has been to the ball, which he said has made about 17,000 tournament-caliber courses obsolete because of added distance.
"The USGA let it get out of hand," Nicklaus said. "They thought the rules would be OK when they went from a wound ball to a composite golf ball.
"Do I like it? Probably not, but I'm an old fogey. You look at Augusta a couple of weeks ago. Bubba Watson hits the ball over the trees at 13. Fifty years ago I couldn't hit the ball over the trees at 13, and they weren't that big."
When Nicklaus speaks, people listen.