The manshould apologize.He really should.In a world with
real problems, not the least of which is picking a new cast for
Saturday Night Live, it's just not right that some chunky
character with a squeaky voice and questionable taste in trousers
should tie up our attention for 30 or 40 years.
Take winning the Tradition.On Sunday, Jack Nicklaus did it for
the third time, and not even a late-afternoon weather system
sweeping out of Arizona's Sonora mountains could blow away the
sense of deja vu.Didn't it leave you blinking? Didn't it seem as
if he and Isao Aoki played the 18th hole over and over again --
like, three times?And didn't you get the feeling you were
watching a sagebrush version of the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol,
where the Japanese pro who does wheelies with his putter finished
a close second to -- yeah, you know who?
Talk about redundancy: Nicklaus designed and built the golf course
that the Tradition is played on -- the Cochise course at Desert
Mountain -- and he built the Renegade and Geronimo courses right
next door and the course at Desert Highlands just down the road.
So while you can't say he actually owns the cactus country north
of Scottsdale, you can say that no lizard walks there without a
license from Golden Bear International.
After the 50-and-over set played four tournament rounds in the
desert last week, survivors such as Jim Colbert and Raymond
Floyd acted as if they had pursued a mirage -- victory --
across Cochise and had grasped only sand.And there were the
Is the Tradition considered one of the Senior PGA Tour's four
major championships because it is a major?Or is it a major only
because Nicklaus wins it?Of his eight Senior tour victories,
seven are so-called majors.Of course, Nicklaus doesn't often
play in the ``minors.''
Does our man fly his corporate jet to Desert Mountain every
spring for the first-place money ($150,000 this year), to check
progress on his new golf courses (Apache is under construction,
with a fifth course -- Pocohontas? -- on the drawing board), or
to take golf lessons from teaching pro Jim Flick? (Last week's
lesson plan: ``Let the arms go soft, and let it flow.'')
Did white-maned Jim Ferree know whom he was playing with in
Sunday's final threesome?The 63-year-old phenom, whose lone
PGA Tour victory had come in 1958 and who hadn't won on the
Senior tour in four years, shot 67 on Sunday to finish with a
total of 277.That left him one shot behind Nicklaus and Aoki
and just short in his bid to become the tour's oldest winner
Nicklaus, who turned 55 in January, tried to provide answers.But
after almost 40 years of winning, you have to wonder if he
realizes how practiced his responses sound. On Sunday evening,
having just dispatched Aoki on the 3rd hole of sudden death, he
played it humble, saying, ``I don't remember the swing I came here
with because it wasn't any good.''Any old-timer would recall
that Nicklaus, at age 40, had sounded pretty much the same theme
after holding off Aoki at Baltusrol.``I had sort of been
wondering when the wheels were going to come off,'' Nicklaus had
said then, ``because that's what had been happening to me for a
year and a half or so.''
The truth is, Nicklaus is not quite the shotmaker he used to be.
He doesn't drive the ball as far as Ferree or Aoki do, he fiddles
with his swing a lot, and he spends too much time strapped to a
chair inhis Gulfstream. His competitive edge, though, seems not
to have dulled.After three rounds at Desert Mountain, the great
man poor-mouthed his ball-striking and suggested that luck
accounted for his sharingthe lead with Aoki at seven- under-par
209.In reality it was Nicklaus's renewed confidence on the
greens that kept him going.``I can't recall ever, ever having a
better week of putting,'' he said when it was over.``There were
only two putts I didn't hit exactly where I wanted to.''
Aoki, just in from a snow-shortened win at the American Express
Grandslam in Chiba, Japan, is, of course, no stooge with a putter.
His average of 1.67 putts per round is the best on the Senior
tour. Paradoxically, though, it was a no-putt hole that put him a
stroke ahead of Nicklaus on Sunday, if only for a few moments. In
a scene reminiscent of his memorable hole-out from the 18th
fairway that beat Jack Renner in the 1983 Hawaiian Open, Aoki sank
a 76-yard pitch shot over water for eagle on the par-5 15th hole.
But Nicklaus immediately responded by making a short putt for
birdie, reestablishing the tie.
The rest of the afternoon was Baltusrol revisited. The first time
the leaders played the par-5 18th, both made birdie after
exquisite greenside sand shots.They then played the 18th again
to start the playoff -- only this time the wind had freshened to
30 miles an hour.Nicklaus donned a sweater, and Aoki teed off
without his straw hat, but neither gained an edge and both made
par.Next, following a playoff formula someone must have
concocted on an upset stomach, the combatants rode back to the
par-3 17th hole. Again they halved with pars.
That set up the final ramble down 18, which turned in Nicklaus's
favor when he whistled a three-wood from the fairway to just off
the back of the green in 2.Aoki, trying to strike his third shot
-- a nine-iron -- close to the pin, hit into the back bunker
instead, near an outcropping of desert granite that Nicklaus must
haveinstalled for just such contingencies. Aoki wound up making
6 to Nicklaus's birdie 4, ending the struggle.``I'll take him
next time,'' vowed the runner-up with a smile.
There may not be a next time -- not if you credit Nicklaus's
frequent rumblings about quitting tournament golf.Having won the
Tradition, though, he'll probably continue to command our
attention for a while -- another decade, say -- blurring the eye
of memory and sowing confusion about what happened when and where
and to whom.He was probably only rehearsing for Desert Mountain,
1995, when he told reporters in 1980 that his fourth U.S. Open
title ``made me realize this old body has a few more wins in
On Sunday, having gone more than a year without a victory, he was
less bold with his predictions.``You never know if you're going
to win again,'' he admitted before boarding his plane for the
flight to Georgia and the Masters.``I said that 25 years ago.''
Forty-nine tournament victories ago, to be precise.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:MARK FELDMAN (2) Nicklaus redesigned his swing in Arizona, and his course designleft Aoki (above) up against a wall. [Jack Nicklaus hitting golf ball during tournament; Isao Aoki standing against wall as he plays shot]
COLOR PHOTO:WALTER IOOSS JR.[Isao Aoki grimacing as he watches shot]
COLOR PHOTO:MANNY MILLAN [Jack Nicklaus smiling after hitting shot]