More than 187,000 fans jammed into the TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval last week, many of them on hand to see if Jack was back. The Bear was ready with an answer. A last-minute addition to the held at the GTE Suncoast Classic, Jack Nicklaus didn't win the tournament—he finished in a tie for fifth, three strokes in back of winner Dave Stockton—but he created most of its excitement. To handle the overflow crowds, Suncoast officials had to add an extra parking area, immediately dubbed the Jack Nicklaus Lot. And Nicklaus provided the answer his fans were looking for by firing three subpar rounds and pronouncing himself a threat for the Masters.
"I think I've still got a chance to do some things in golf," Nicklaus said in the locker room on Saturday. He means to be a factor in major championships, to put his name up on the leader board again—and not just in senior events. The 55-year-old Nicklaus is measuring himself against Nick Price, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and all the strong young bucks of the PGA Tour.
Skeptics will say that Nicklaus is dreaming again. But put him on the 1st tee at Augusta National in April hitting the ball the way he is now, and only a fool would discount his chances.
"It reminds me of 1980, when everybody was writing that Jack was finished because he didn't have a good '79," said Lee Trevino. "He comes out in 1980 and wins two major championships. Same thing before he won the Masters in '86. I think he's going to have a terrific year, and I think he's going to play a lot. He's out this week, and look at the people. Tampa got a big treat this week with him being here."
Three weeks ago it was Pebble Beach that got the big treat when Nicklaus shot 10 under in the AT&T Pro-Am, his lowest 72-hole score ever on the Monterey Peninsula, to finish in a tie for sixth. The day following that tournament he shot 69 at Pebble to defeat Tom Watson by one stroke in a match that was taped for Shell's Wonderful World of Golf television series. Including the final round of the Senior Tournament of Champions in January, Nicklaus has posted consecutive subpar scores of 68-71-70-67-70-69-70-68. He hasn't been this far under par since the days of pointy collars.
"He can still compete, boys," said Payne Stewart after edging Nicklaus by a stroke at the AT&T.
What accounts for this resurgence? Two things: a new workout program and an oversize titanium driver that isn't on the market yet. "I don't know if I'm looking like a jock, but I do look like less of a dumpy old man," says Nicklaus, who is, indeed, beginning to look athletic again. Increased flexibility has lengthened his swing. As a result his drives have more hang time. And they are finding the fairway again. "This is the first metal driver I've been able to fade," Nicklaus says. "If it's going nowhere and crooked, you can't play from there."
Nicklaus's driving-distance average last year on the PGA Tour was an LPGA-like 240.5 yards. And his accuracy fell off too. He hit only 65% of fairways and 55% of greens in regulation. It's a miracle his stroke average was 72.61. This year at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus hit 76% of his fairways, 79% of his greens in regulation and averaged 25 putts per round.
"He's generating good club-head speed again, but he needs a little more distance with the driver," said Watson after out-driving Nicklaus by an average of 40 yards in the Shell match. Nicklaus, who averaged 250.5 yards off the tee in Tampa, claims he is not worried. "My distance will come back," he says.
He has already come a long way. At the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, his last official PGA Tour event of 1994, he was 10 over for two rounds and missed the cut. He entered nine Tour events for the year and missed the cut in all but the U.S. Open, where he started strong (69-70), but finished weak (77-76). In 21 rounds he shot in the 60s only in that opening round at the U.S. Open, and he was an aggregate 68 over par.
On the Senior tour he won at the 1994 season-opening Mercedes Championships, but that only created false hopes. He finished no better than fourth in his five other official events and was last in both the four-man Senior Skins Game and the Senior Slam of Golf. His final Senior outing was a forgettable tie for 30th at the Northville Classic, the week after he had missed the cut at the British Open.
"He didn't have any fun at all last year," his wife, Barbara, says. "It seemed the harder he tried the worse it got."
A 54-year-old man with a short back-swing and a booming golf-course-design business playing poorly on the PGA Tour was understandable and excusable. But something was definitely wrong when the greatest golfer of all time couldn't crack the top 30 in a Senior tour event. In 1990-91 he had won five of the first nine Senior events he played.
But Nicklaus became bored with the Senior tour. Instead of using it to build his confidence, he has kept it at arm's length. This year's Suncoast was only his 28th Senior appearance since joining the tour in 1990. He has promised to play more Senior events as he gets older, and his peers think he should. "The tournaments he plays in are all the majors, and you get beat up," says Stockton. Adds Gary Player, "Nobody's got more respect for Jack's golf than I do, but I think he's at the age now when he should come out and be playing the Senior tour."
This winter, for the first time in more than 20 years, there was no State of the Bear news conference, Nicklaus's annual early January meeting with the media at his corporate offices in North Palm Beach, Fla. He simply had nothing to talk about, at least in relation to his golf game. "I'm either going to have a great year or it is going to be my last," he said before the Senior Skins in January. "If I feel I can't be competitive, I won't be out there."
Nicklaus has said this before, but he's 55 now and has never endured such a horrid stretch. His performance in the majors the last three years has been dismal—he missed the cut in eight of 12 appearances, and his best finish was a tie for 27th. Those closest to Nicklaus knew that this time he meant it. "Jack's not going to be like Arnold Palmer, not playing good but still playing 25 times a year," says John Montgomery Sr., a longtime friend of Nicklaus's. "Jack's not like that."
Nicklaus began to refocus last summer, after his dismal showing at the PGA. It was then that he decided to augment his fitness program. For five years he had worked with Pete Egoscue, an "anatomical functionalist" from San Diego who designed a series of exercises for Nicklaus's chronic back problems. The regimen allowed him to play golf relatively pain-free and without chiropractic care. In late September he also started working with Pete Draovitch, a physical therapist who is Greg Norman's trainer and was a graduate assistant in strength and conditioning at the University of Miami. Draovitch had also worked with Jack's son Gary, who is currently playing on the Asia tour.
"It was hard for me to look at the greatest golfer of all time and say, 'These are things you need to work on to make your swing resemble what it used to look like,' " Draovitch says. "But his golf swing had become very short. His functional flexibility was not very good."
Draovitch now sees as much as a 500% increase in Nicklaus's cardiovascular fitness and his strength. The workouts with Draovitch can last two hours and include stretching, abdominal exercises, functional weight training and cardiovascular training on the Frank-N-Slide, Stairmaster and Versiclimber. Nicklaus celebrated his 55th birthday on Jan. 21 by playing tennis with friends on the three grass courts at his house. He had only one piece of cake that night.
Nicklaus started seeing results at the Diners Club Matches in December when he and Palmer lost in a playoff. Raymond Floyd could see a big difference in Nicklaus at this year's Senior Skins. "It was the best I've seen him play in a long time," Floyd said. "It's the commitment. Its not easy as we get older. He's still the best player in the world. He can still play golf."
He added the Suncoast to his schedule after playing so well at Pebble Beach because he wanted to play in another tournament before the Doral-Ryder Open, a PGA Tour stop, in Miami next week. He is also thinking about playing in the regular Tour's Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill Orlando in mid-March.
But if Nicklaus is committed to playing more golf, he isn't committed exclusively to playing golf. Between his tournament appearances in the next seven weeks he has several trips scheduled to visit courses he has under construction.
"I've got to hit, as we break in March, Anaconda [Mont.], Minneapolis, Pleasanton [Calif.], Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Hilton Head," he said. "As the northern courses start to open up, I have to go to New York, to Purchase. I've got a lot of work I've got to catch up with." These may be golf-related jobs, but he has no time for his own game when he's supervising design work.
Having his own jet, a Gulfstream IV-SP, may make it too easy for Nicklaus to travel. Nicklaus was scheduled to be in Atlanta on Friday for a function to benefit the golf program at Georgia Tech, where his youngest son, Michael, is a junior on the men's team. After shooting 69 in the Suncoast's opening round, he hurried to the airport, flew on "Air Bear' " to Georgia, made a one-hour speech, answered questions and was back at the Marriott Westshore in Tampa by midnight. "It probably wasn't the wisest thing to do, but I committed to it long before I entered the tournament," he said after shooting 70 on Saturday. "I promised Michael I'd do it."
It was just another typical day for Nicklaus, who admits he goes stir-crazy if he's at home for longer than one week. On his way home from Pebble Beach he took Barbara to Vail, Colo., for a skiing vacation. But before he hit the slopes, Nicklaus flew to Reno to look at a golf-course site. With 30 courses under construction, his design business has never been busier. His five children are grown, but he now has six grandchildren he likes to spend time with. Arranging a serious competitive schedule around all those site visits and other commitments, and still being able to "do some things in golf," may be something only Jack Nicklaus thinks he can pull off.
"I never had a total physical before, so on the way back from the Diners Club Matches in December, Barbara and I stopped off at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale," Nicklaus said. "We both checked out fine, but the doctor said, 'I only have one suggestion. I would slow up a little bit.' I had to laugh. I told him, 'I'm sorry. I just can't.' "
Nicklaus enjoyed a Suncoast round with Player and Trevino (above, right), but he's eyeing the majors.
In Tampa, only his signature wasn't smooth sailing for Nicklaus.