Jack Nicklaus was looking for a sign last week in Colorado. As late as Sunday morning, America's 53-year-old Golfer Emeritus was still pondering whether to fly to England for this week's British Open at Sandwich. His manager, Larry O'Brien, was trying, by fax and by phone, to fend off British journalists and golf officials, none of whom could believe Nicklaus would end his streak of 134 straight appearances in a major championship.
"He still hasn't decided," a flustered O'Brien said, only minutes before Nicklaus teed off with a one-stroke lead in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open at the Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood. "Jack doesn't want to go to England unless he feels good about his game." Because Nicklaus had finished Saturday's third round with three straight birdies to reach five under par—a feel-good finish, if ever there was one—you had to conclude that only one thing would keep Nicklaus from announcing his retirement from major-tournament golf: winning.
So the situation was fraught with uncertainty some four hours later when Nicklaus, with a one-stroke lead, crouched over a 2½-foot sidehill putt for par on the 18th green. Anybody looking for omens had plenty: thunder rumbling out of the Rockies, coal-colored clouds swirling overhead, a sinister yellow sky reflecting off the water along the 18th fairway. Senior rookie Tom Weiskopf waited, the leader in the clubhouse at five under par.
Nicklaus's putt had just enough break to force a decision. He could either bang it straight at the hole and risk an even longer comebacker if he missed or he could test his nerves with a slow-rolling "feel" putt, aimed to enter the side door. "I told myself, I'm going to hit this putt firm," Nicklaus said. "If it doesn't go in. it's Weiskopf's tournament."
Nicklaus stroked the putt firmly, and the outcome was told in the gallery's response—a roar to rival the thunder. Minutes later a beaming Nicklaus rendered his verdict: "On to Sandwich!"
Thus was averted—delayed, rather—the inevitable day when Jack Nicklaus stands before us and announces that he no longer thinks he can win golf tournaments and therefore will no longer play in them. Without the occasional taste of victory, he has no appetite for golf. "I was sort of at a crossroads this week," he said.
Actually Nicklaus was more like a man walking a familiar road for the last time. Climbing the 18th fairway on Sunday, he turned to his son and caddie, Jack II, and shared a memory: how he had bogeyed the same hole, with the flag in the same spot, on the last day of the 1960 U.S. Open, when he was a 20-year-old U.S. Amateur champion playing with Ben Hogan, finishing second to Arnold Palmer. Earlier in the day Nicklaus had stood over a 22-foot birdie putt on number 12 and realized he had faced the exact same putt, again in '60. and that his score on both occasions was five under par. "It's funny how I kept flashing back," said Nicklaus.
A lesser player might have been undone by such flashbacks. Since winning the 1991 Senior Open at Oakland Hills, Nicklaus has edged ever closer to irrelevance in his sporadic tournament appearances. Because of a persistent shoulder injury, his best finish in any event this year was a ninth-place tie at the PGA Seniors Championship in April. He missed the cut in last year's British Open at Muirfield, sank after an opening-round 67 in this year's Masters and wound up tied for 72nd at the U.S. Open last month at Baltusrol. "I embarrassed myself at the Open and at Muirfield," he said.
That puts it too strongly, but the slippage was unmistakable, particularly on the Senior Tour, which Nicklaus was expected to dominate. Losing now and then to longtime rivals like Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd hurts a little; losing to unheralded former pros like Jim Albus, Larry Laoretti and Tom Wargo hurts a lot. Nicklaus confessed that his mother threatened to stop watching his Saturday rounds on television because he kept shooting himself out of contention.
Was Nicklaus losing his grip? His latest swing mentor thought he was—literally. Rick Smith, who also coaches U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, recently suggested to Nicklaus that he adjust his grip slightly; the tip restored the boom to the Bear's drives and the control to his iron game.
Even more remarkable, Nicklaus's undiagnosed shoulder injury—"I haven't been able to lift my arm for six months," he said on Sunday—vanished practically overnight. "I started swinging better, and the hurt went away."
The rest of the field at Cherry Hills might argue that the hurt was merely redistributed. Runner-up Weiskopf could only shrug when the tournament was over. His five-birdie, front-side 30 on Sunday had dislodged Nicklaus from the lead for only a few minutes. "There will never be another Jack Nicklaus," he said. "Nobody can play like that guy can. Nobody."
Certainly there is something epochal in the numbers swirling around Nicklaus's achievements: 18 major titles, 70 PGA Tour victories, eight money titles, five Player of the Year awards and a record-tying 17 straight years with at least one Tour win. So maybe it wasn't crazy that Nicklaus used Senior golf's biggest event as his own British Open qualifier. Lightning tormented the foothills like a dry cough all week, but Nicklaus never flinched. He shot 68 on Thursday to trail the leader, Chi Chi Rodriguez, by one stroke. On Friday he stumbled to a 73. On Saturday he was again sublime, overtaking the field with a 67 and exciting passions with a bold two-iron approach to set up a birdie on the par-5, island-green 17th. "This was for Mom," joked Nicklaus.
Nicklaus hit some squirrelly shots early on Sunday, but he followed two front-side bogeys with birdies and made the turn in 34. Was he confident? Well, he didn't look like a man about to retire.
Nicklaus pulled ahead of Weiskopf at number 16, sinking a downhill 15-footer for birdie to go six under. The shot that probably carried Nicklaus to England, though, was his 260-yard one-iron tee shot over the water on the long and dangerous 18th, a hole that gave up no birdies on Sunday. "It felt like the best swing I made all day," said Nicklaus.
With a level lie Nicklaus needed only a choked-down five-iron to reach the middle of the elevated green. Once on the putting surface he had the tournament won—never mind that his putt for birdie was a 35-footer with about five feet of break or that he would leave himself that dicey 2½-footer. "Who can tell me when he has ever three-putted to lose a major championship?" said Weiskopf. "He's the greatest pressure putter of all time."
" 'I'm gonna play some more golf," Nicklaus said, heading for Sandwich. "And I'm gonna play some good golf." One hundred thirty-five and counting.
Weiskopf's narrow miss on a long birdie putt at 18 helped send Nicklaus winging to Sandwich.
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