Toronto, Canada – By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jack Nicklaus was the recipient of glowing tributes and sentimental greetings on Thursday while he celebrated his 70th birthday on a fishing trip to Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean.
Long known as the 'Golden Bear', American Nicklaus is widely viewed as the game's greatest player and he piled up a record 18 majors in a glittering career that set the benchmark for others to follow.
"Jack Nicklaus and I have been very good friends for 50 years, from the time he arrived on the national tournament scene in the early 1960s," American Palmer said in a statement released by the PGA Tour.
"If anything has distinguished our association over that half century, it has been our competitiveness.
"It was not just our desire to be the winner every time we faced each other in a golf tournament in our golden years. We often were rivals in business endeavors, golf and otherwise.
"Through it all, Jack and I have been of one mind and pursuit with regard to expanding and protecting the integrity, the dignity and the traditions of our great game," added the 80-year-old Palmer, a seven-times major champion.
"He understood the true value of internationalism. We are a global society, and he continued to play around the world and promote the game of golf.
"While doing that, he has been a family man and he's got a wonderful wife in Barbara. He has been the epitome of golf's necessity."
Eight-times major winner Tom Watson, who featured in several memorable duels with Nicklaus in the 1970s, also praised his fellow American.
"Jack is my friend and competitor," the 50-year-old Watson said. "I have learned a great deal from him in terms of both golf and life.
"Better than anyone else I've ever seen in golf, Jack had the amazing ability to hit the proper shot, at the proper time, under the proper conditions.
"When all is said and done ... his most lasting legacy will not be his 20 major championships, but the wonderful memories of being a loving father, grandfather, and husband.
A prodigious hitter in his prime and one of the game's best putters, Nicklaus won 73 times on the PGA Tour in a professional career that began in 1961 and effectively ended with an emotional farewell at the 2005 British Open.
He was golf's dominant figure from the early sixties until the late eighties and his on-course battles with Palmer and Player captivated fans, although Nicklaus generally held the edge.
His career haul of majors comprised a record six U.S. Masters, five PGA championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens.
Nicklaus finished second a record 19 times in major championships, perhaps a better reflection of his remarkable consistency at the pinnacle of the game.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)