B.T. (Before Tiger): Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus: My Story

By Jack Nicklaus

Simon & Schuster

505 pp., $28

Tiger

By John Strege

Broadway Books

238 pp., $25

In terms of their careers in professional golf, Tiger Woods is still striding down the first fairway while Jack Nicklaus is approaching the clubhouse. When it comes to selecting a "good read," therefore, many aficionados of the sport may reach for Nicklaus's definitive new autobiography, "Jack Nicklaus: My Story," over any rush-to-publish book about Woods.

Nicklaus has decades of experience under his belt and a raft of titles in his bag - 70 to be exact, including an unmatched 18 major titles in the Masters, US and British Opens, and PGA Championship. Most experts consider Nicklaus the greatest player ever. He dominated golf in the 1960s and '70s.

In the preface to his book, Nicklaus says he believes that one day his accomplishments will be surpassed. He takes immense pleasure, however, in knowing he has made the task so challenging.

Woods may be the phenom now, but Nicklaus was in 1959 at age 19, when he won the US Amateur Championship, his first major title. An interesting difference is that Nicklaus grew up a multisport enthusiast who didn't identify golf as his leading pursuit until 17. Woods, as has been widely publicized, was weaned to be a golfer. Nicklaus's father was probably not as intensely devoted to his son's athletic development as Earl Woods, yet Charlie Nicklaus, a pharmacist and former football player, helped cast the die. Jack says his dad "relentlessly encouraged and nurtured" his desire to excel, often challenging him in footraces when he was a sixth-grader.

Nicklaus hits on all the important topics in his life, including his family, rivals, the metamorphosis of his public image, and his impressive business successes. His discussion of the latter subject is especially timely, given all the attention to Tiger Woods's commercial value.

In the history of sports, no parent has probably achieved as much fame for his child's accomplishments as Earl Woods. He was there at the Masters golf tournament in April to greet victorious son Tiger as he came off the final green. He was there nearly 20 years ago when Tiger appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and he was there again the other week when Oprah got father and son to talk about their life together in golf.

The two are sort of a package deal, as they are in Earl's new book, Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life, (HarperCollins, 190 pp., $16.20) which is one of the most intriguing instructional volumes to ever hit the sports shelves.

For anyone unacquainted with the writing skill of John Updike, Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, (Alfred A. Knopf, 201 pp., $23) offers a delightful introduction. Updike describes it as "thirty written evidences of an impassioned but imperfect devotion" to the game. The pieces, as varied as the clubs in one's bag, first appeared in a range of venues, from Golf Digest and tournament programs to the New Yorker. The collected observations are hit dead to the flagstick.

One is about a lesson with a pro whose remarks uplift and crush in rapid succession. When asked to show the pro his swing, Updike writes that he feels the "impurities like bubbles and warps in glass; hurried backswing, too much right hand at impact, and failure to finish high." Here, clearly, is a writer who can speak to the frustrated shotmaker in all of us.

Tucked into a short chapter on tips, Updike shares two that he has found consistently useful: (1) On long putts, think of hitting the ball halfway and letting it roll the remaining distance, and (2) on chip shots, imagine the right hand (if a rightie) throwing the ball to the green.

Only 2 percent of all golfers have taken a putting lesson. Clearly, many players take putting for granted. Yet this aspect of the game holds the greatest potential for improving the score of the average golfer - the weekend player who takes between 90 and 112 shots over 18 holes. Steve Page, in Putting Secrets for the Weekend Golfer (St. Martin's Griffin, 122 pp., $11.95), has reached this conclusion and is sure he can help. Once a scratch college golfer, he makes his living writing instructional manuals, a skill he employs in this thorough guide to putting.

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