The next big thing? Don’t bet on it

Tiger Woods (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

At 16-years-old, Gary Nicklaus featured on the front cover of Sports Illustrated billed as “The Next Nicklaus.” Just over a year later, Gary’s father won the Masters, netting his 18th and final major championship.

The fourth of Jack and Barbara’s five children, Gary was identified early as being the best of the Nicklaus boys, and first beat his father aged 15. Attending Ohio State University, Gary was an All-American, qualified for the U.S. Amateur, and won the prestigious Porter Cup in 1991, where his name lies on the roll of honour between Phil Mickelson in 1990 and David Duval in 1992.

Not quite the storied amateur career of his father, but still, a career in the pros beckoned for the now heir apparent to the Nicklaus throne.

Over the next eight years, largely thanks to sponsor’s invitations – though he did qualify for the 1997 US Open – Nicklaus made 26 PGA Tour starts, made just two cuts, and failed on each of his numerous attempts at PGA Tour Q-School.

In 1999, now 30, he finally made it through Q-School and earned a PGA Tour card for the first season of the new millennium, but it was never plain sailing. His first season ended with a narrow card retention, his second season ended with another trip to Q-School (he passed the exam again), and in his third and final PGA Tour season, he made just six of 26 cuts and that was that.

Rough estimates suggest that there may be somewhere between 50 and 60 million golfers around the world. And of these, Gary Nicklaus ranked as high as 189th. Though it may seem a somewhat journeyman career for a touring professional, few realise quite how good the younger Nicklaus needed to be to even compete at that level.

I was reminded of Gary Nicklaus this week as a short video clip emerged of Charlie Woods playing a shot in a junior event with his 15-time major winning father on the bag.

Now, first things first, 10-year-old Charlie has a balanced and rhythmic swing that elicited wonder and envy in equal measure. And the internet went wild. With more than 1.4 million views on Twitter in the first 24-hours, the elementary school student is already being touted as the game’s next superstar.

Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but being the son of Tiger Woods automatically cranks up expectation. Gary Nicklaus the golfer first came to the wider world’s attention at 16 when Sports Illustrated splashed him all over the world; Charlie Woods the golfer got his first exposure from a candid camera shot at aged 10, and now that the genie is out, there’ll be no bottling it.

No doubt every time that young Charlie has ever teed it up at a junior event, there have been nudges, and whispers. “That’s Tiger’s kid, he must be great,” etc. Just like Gary Nicklaus doubtlessly encountered as he rose through the junior ranks.

The main difference nowadays, however, is technology. That anybody on the grounds can covertly record – the legality of this is very questionable, of course – and track the youngster means that we’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of it.

The pressure to perform, to succeed, and most of all, to live up to expectation has crippled many aspiring sportsmen, and we don’t even know if Charlie has aspirations beyond enjoying his golf. Of course, the Woods name brings with it opportunities not available to most –  just like the Nicklaus name did for Gary and his brothers and sister – but name and opportunity alone are not a recipe for success.

I’d love to see Charlie Woods win PGA Tour events, I’d love to see him win majors, I’d love to see him join his father in the hall of fame, but the harsh reality is that it’s odds against him ever even playing on tour. It is odds against any of the kids he’s competing against ever making it because so few ever do.

Gary Nicklaus was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 and never won a professional tournament. But in the face of all that’s coming, if Charlie Woods has Gary Nicklaus’ career, then he’s one hell of a player.



Get all the latest golf news and free digital editions of Irish Golfer delivered straight to your inbox!