The reality of the newspaper headline did not at first sink in: "British Open Last Tourney for Jack." Can it be that Jack Nicklaus, the finest golfer ever, will never again enter the arena? Apparently, and the British Open will be the last hurrah for The Bear who became The Man.
|Jack Nicklaus acknowledges the well-wishers at Pebble Beach in 2000 during what would be his final U.S. Open. (USGA Photo Archives)|
Nicklaus, 65, returned to the British Open only because the Royal & Ancient Golf Club moved up the Old Course at St. Andrews in the rotation to give Nicklaus one last chance. Nicklaus, who won twice at St. Andrews, in 1970 and 1978, has won three claret jugs.
"From a tournament standpoint that will be it for me," said Nicklaus recently during a promotional appearance in Britain. "I will play a few skins games and father-sons, but from any kind of tournament involvement, that's it."
Nicklaus came into our national consciousness in 1959 and has dominated nearly every discussion about the game since.
Nicklaus won major championships through the transient hierarchies of nine American presidencies. Sporting a buzz cut worthy of a West Point cadet, he began collecting national championships at the age of 19 in 1959 when he won his first U.S. Amateur during the Eisenhower Administration. Through the next three decades he continued to win and in the Reagan years staged his unforgettable back-nine charge to win the 1986 Masters. As the Olden Bear, he won his last senior major when he captured the 1993 U.S. Senior Open.
Year after year, he was steadfast, reliable. A Nicklaus victory could be counted on like the morning newspaper and he would reliably make some super-human shots during these pursuits. And we could always count on his easy grace; the conceded putt to Tony Jacklin when his Ryder Cup match hung in the balance, the agreement between Nicklaus and his friend Gary Player to declare the last President's Cup a tie.
If he has now surrendered his headlines to Phil Mickelson, Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods, he is always there, his authority unchallenged. As Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post once wrote, "In this era, golf and golfers have really measured themselves against only one yardstick: What would Nicklaus think?"
And if there's any doubt that he is still in our consciousness, witness the torrential outpouring of our feelings for him when, in April, his grandson died.
Television commentators continue to refer to his deeds. Who was the best clutch putter when a putt had to be holed on the 72nd green? Nicklaus. Who was the best long-iron player ever?Nicklaus. Who wasthe one player who brought power to the game using persimmon clubheads, steel shafts and golf balls that resembled rocks? Nicklaus.
Long before anyone thought of sports psychology, Nicklaus brought his own strong mind to golf, analyzing every course, every hole, every shot, with intense perception. Studying ways to deal with nerves, how about being born with that self-control? There was simply no fear in the man.
"I never thought anyone would put Hogan in the shadows, but he did," Gene Sarazen once said.
Nicklaus also married an exceptional woman, Barbara Nicklaus, and together they raised a family of such closeness that today each of his five children lives within 15 minutes of the Nicklaus compound.
"What's so remarkable about Jack is the balance he retained in his life while staying the best for so long," said Woods in 2000.
Additionally, Nicklaus has evolved into one of the game's finest golf course architects, creating holes that seem at one with the land, flowing naturally over land that has been there since the glaciers pushed the dirt into hillocks and vales. Nicklaus honors nature.
On a personal note, I've been fortunate to play several Nicklaus courses. The elegant, much-televised Muirfield Village is of course magical, but the others, while less-known, are enchanting in their own right, as if that giant, blond hand merely caressed the land, sowing it with grass and splashes of bunker sand. The Hills-of-Lakeway, near Austin, Texas, tip-toes through nature, barely intruding on the habitats of birds, coyotes and even a fox or two. It is narrower than many Nicklaus courses and calls for precision off the tee and well-planned second shots. Ocean Hammock Golf Club, in Palm Coast, Fla., shows again his reverence for nature. The course meanders along the Atlantic shore, ribbons of green threading through sabal palms, scrub oak, palmettos, native grasses and the occasional marshland where egrets and Great Blue Herron abound.
My favorite of these, however, is The Bear's Club in North Palm Beach, Fla. This is his home course and here Nicklaus reveals the beauty of a South Florida terrain that can often seem uninspired. Wide swaths of palmetto and pines separate the holes so that one hole cannot be seen from another. There's not much rough, just wilderness, and marshes dot the property. The driving areas are wide, a Nicklaus trademark, and the big, fast greens have intriguing rolls and breaks. I'd like to take the bunker sand home with me. Even the few cart paths around the tees and greens blend into nature, a coarser version of white sand. Every plant and hollow seems to have been held here in splendid isolation for a thousand years. You won't find any tulips on Nicklaus courses.
Fulfilling A Goal
In 1960, when he was 20 years old, Nicklaus said, "Jones is the greatest golfer who ever lived and probably ever will live. That's my goal. Bobby Jones. It's the only goal."
With his 18 major championship wins, 20 if we count his two U.S. Amateur Championships, Nicklaus reached his goal. During his playing career, Nicklaus made a particularly indelible stamp on USGA championships.
In winning the 1959 U.S. Amateur, he became the second youngest champion in USGA history. When he tied for second in the 1960 U.S. Open, he recorded the lowest score ever made by an amateur at 280 for 72 holes.
He was also adept at USGA team play. As a member of the 1959 and 1961 USA Walker Cup Teams, he was undefeated in foursomes and singles play as the USA won both competitions, 9 to 3 and 11 to 1, respectively. Leading his team in the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship, he smashed previous scoring records with a brilliant 11-under-par total of 269 for four rounds over the historic course at Merion Golf Club. Although individual prizes are not awarded, Nicklaus surpassed the second lowest scorer, Deane Beman, by 13 strokes and the USA team won by a remarkable 42 strokes.
In 1961, Nicklaus was 20 under par for the 112 holes he played to win the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He was never over par at the end of any of his seven matches and scored the then largest margin of victory in any final since 1955 when he beat Dudley Wysong, 8 and 6.
He would go on to win the Open in three different decades, a feat that has never been matched. Each time, he won in dramatic fashion.
At Oakmont in 1962, it was against nation's hero, Arnold Palmer, playing before Palmer's enraptured fans at Oakmont Country Club. Nicklaus was in his first year as a professional and was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion when he defeated Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. Not since the days of Bob Jones had anyone held the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles at the same time. Known for his long driving, Nicklaus was also a remarkable putter and three-putted only once over the 90 holes it took to decide the championship on Oakmont's testy greens.
In 1967, Nicklaus, then 27, set a new 72-hole Open scoring record of 275 over the Lower Course of Baltusrol Golf Club. In winning his second championship, he beat Hogan's previous record by one stroke. Needing a birdie on the final hole to break the record, Nicklaus nailed a magnificent 1-iron to the green and holed the 21-foot birdie putt.
When the Open was played at Pebble Beach, in 1972, it was a good omen for Nicklaus. Pebble is one of his most-loved courses. He'd won the Crosby there in 1967 and won it again just six months before this Open. It was also where he had won his second U.S. Amateur title shortly before turning professional.
Stern, scenic Pebble Beach was the perfect showcase for his power and strategy and he either led or was tied for the lead throughout the championship. One the final day at the 218-yard 17th hole, he drilled a perfect 1-iron into a fierce wind. The ball rattled the flagstick, stopping just six inches from the hole for a birdie. He cautiously bogeyed the 18th for a three-stroke win over Bruce Crampton.
Was there ever a more gratifying Open victory for Nicklaus than in 1980? He had won the British Open in 1978 and also captured the Philadelphia Classic that same summer, but had not won since. Normally he was perched at the top, or near the top of the money list, but in 1979 he was seventy-first and winless. One Southern television sports announcer declared early that summer that, "Nicklaus is through."
Undaunted, Nicklaus, then 40, returned to the Lower Course at Baltusrol where he had won in 1967. Even with his wonderful past record, there had been a weakness in his game. Lee Trevino had said that God gave Nicklaus everything but a wedge. Now, Nicklaus had corrected that flaw by enlisting his friend Phil Rodgers, the wizard of the short game, and for two weeks Nicklaus and Rodgers had worked on Jack's pitching and chipping on his back-yard practice green.
In the first round, his hard work paid off when on the final hole he faced a difficult little lob shot to the green. With new confidence, he struck the shot and the ball trickled to within three feet of the hole. If he made this birdie putt, he would break Johnny Miller's 18-hole Open scoring record of 63. It was the only makeable putt he missed all day and he had to settle for a record-tying 63 and a first-round tie with Tom Weiskopf.
He held on in the second round with a 71 for another Open record score of 134 for 36 holes and took a two-stroke lead. After 54 holes, Nicklaus was at 204 and tied for the lead with Isao Aoki of Japan. Paired together for the second straight day, they faced off in a battle that became match play. Going into the 16th hole, he held a two-stroke lead but he couldn't shake Aoki.
Both players made 3 at the 16th, then both birdied the long 630-yard 17th. Nicklaus from 20 feet, Aoki from five feet. Two ahead with one to go.
As they climbed the hill to the 18th green, they saw that Nicklaus had pitched to within ten feet. Aoki was closer.
When Nicklaus drained his birdie putt, fans began to rush to the green and he had to hold up his hand to stop them. Aoki also made his birdie put and both men had broken the 72-hole U.S. Open record, Jack with 272 and Isao with 274. Security people formed a wall around the new champion as spectators swarmed trying to slap his back or simply touch him. A grinning Nicklaus, usually so stoic, had his fourth U.S. Open and cries of, "Jack is back!" resounded from the tumultuous crowds.
"It hardly seemed he had been away," author Robert Sommers wrote in his book The U.S. Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge.
If the upcoming British Open is truly his last official competitive appearance, he will no doubt go out in inimitable Nicklaus style. He did, after all, bash a 3-wood second shot to the green of the par-5 18th hole in his final U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000. And, he hit a soaring 6-iron to within a few feet of the 18th hole in his final round at The Masters. We can count on him to do something grand at St. Andrews.
Meeting Nicklaus is to meet someone with easy grace and Midwestern affability. But the man with the friendly veneer has the eyes of an eagle. He misses nothing. Television enlarges and enhances its heroes and Nicklaus, despite all of the power he brought to the game, is somewhat smaller in person than he looks on the screen. He is, after all, 5'11" tall, 3 inches shorter than Mickelson and Vijay Singh and 4 inches shorter than Ernie Els.
In what he has achieved as an athlete, however, in what he has accomplished as an architect and in what he is as a man, Jack Nicklaus is as towering a figure as we are likely to see.
Jack Nicklaus and the USGA - His Records
His play in the U.S. Amateur launched Nicklaus into the USGA record book. He is one of only 11 players to win the Amateur and the U.S. Open and one of only 13 to win the Amateur and the NCAA Championship. His match play winning percentage of .828 (24-5) places him fourth in that category.
In the U.S. Open, he recorded the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur (282) in 1960 at Cherry Hills. He is tied with Willie Anderson, Robert T. Jones Jr., and Ben Hogan with the most victories (4) and is tied with Jones, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer for the most runner-up finishes (4). He's tied with Anderson with the most top-five finishes with 11, and is in a class by himself with the most top-10 finishes with 18.
Only Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Gary Player, Tiger Woods and Nicklaus have won the U.S. and British Opens, The Masters and the PGA Championship. His 272 in the memorable "Jack is Back" win at the 1980 U.S. Open ties him with four players for the lowest 72-hole score. When he fired a 63 in the first round, he joined Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Vijay Sing in holding the record for the lowest 18-hole score.
He played in more consecutive U.S. Open Championships (44) than any other player and completed 72 holes, making the cut, 35 times, another record. His is the longest span from first to last Open victories, 18 years, from 1961 to 1980. He has the most sub-par rounds, with 37, and the most rounds in the 60s, with 29.
He is among only eight players who were start-to-finish winners, with ties.
Nicklaus smashed more records in the U.S. Senior Open, coming from four strokes back to tie for the lead at the 1991 championship at Oakland Hills. He then fired a scorching 65 to defeat Chi Chi Rodriguez by four in the 18-hole playoff. Two years later he won his final USGA championship when he captured the Senior Open at Cherry Hills Country Club with a 278 finish to Weiskopf's 279.
In the Senior Open he has the most sub-par rounds with 26 and the most rounds in the 60s with 17. He's tied for the most top-10 finishes with Miller Barber at eight and tied with Hale Irwin for the most top-5 finishes at 7.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager in communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.