Nicklaus On Scottish Money Testament to His Character

Here is a quick test. What do you think would move the Scots to put a foreign golfer on their ?5 note? And that is not all. Last year, the venerable Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, governing body for the British Open and most of the rest of the game, did the unthinkable. It changed the rotation of courses that host The Open in order to allow that foreign golfer, Jack Nicklaus, to play his last hole of professional competitive golf at St. Andrews and wave goodbye from the famous Swilken Burn Bridge.

Why would the Scots give Jack Nicklaus a status previously accorded only to the Queen and the Queen Mother, to be pictured on currency while still alive? Nicklaus has done much for the game that we credit to the Scots — but they have had a few folks who can play the game there and none of them have been so honored. And cynics would point out that the currency is issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of Nicklaus’ sponsors. But it also sponsors a host of star international athletes who are not even on a postage stamp.

Jack Nicklaus is so honored for a single moment of character from one of the most competitive people on the planet during one of the most competitive events in sports, the Ryder Cup.

It was 1969 and the American team had won 10 of the previous 11 Ryder Cup competitions. After a fierce week of golf at Royal Birkdale, the teams were tied with the deciding final match between Nicklaus and Englishman Tony Jacklin, still on the course. Nicklaus came to the 17th tee with a two-stroke lead over Jacklin, who had already beaten Nicklaus twice that week. Sinking a 55-foot putt, Jacklin scored an eagle on 17 to come to the final tee all square. Only a win on that final hole would take the cup for the Brits. A tie would leave the cup in the hands of the American team for another two years. On the green, both competitors had putts for par. Nicklaus sank his 4-foot effort, leaving Jacklin to sink what should have been a simple 2-footer for a meaningless tie.

Nicklaus without hesitation conceded the putt, giving the Brits a tie, and said, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances I would never give you the opportunity.”

In short, while the Americans kept the cup, Nicklaus preserved the value of the event and acknowledged the brave play of his opponent. His decision was not unanimously lauded by his teammates. But Nicklaus understood that there was more to be gained and little to be won by allowing his opponent to embarrass himself unnecessarily. He would have gladly beaten his competitor, but would not want Jacklin remembered for beating himself when it would not have impact on the fate of the cup.

Nicklaus remembered in that moment what it is often hard for fierce competitors to recall in the heat of business battle, at the negotiating table or when pursuing a competitive contract: How we win is generally just as important as whether we win. Jack Nicklaus made a long-term ally out of a fierce competitor and his entire nation.

I have two of the fivers that the Scots issued honoring Nicklaus. One is neatly preserved and framed on the wall of my office. The other I keep in my wallet. They are a constant reminder to me of the importance of character to long-term success. In fact, I hope to buy a pint in a St. Andrews pub in another 40 years, pay with my fiver and get to hear the story all over again.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 27, 2006.