There are 156 good reasons--one for every man in the field--for
denying Jack Nicklaus another special exemption into the U.S.
Open, but the real reason he probably won't tee it up this June
at the Olympic Club is never mentioned: Some people within the
USGA think the organization should get out of the nostalgia
business. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have each been given five
exemptions into the Open already, and that largesse, the
hard-liners argue, was not only excessive but also a bad
They needn't apologize for taking that position. Unlike the
Masters or the PGA, which give former winners lifetime passes,
or the British Open, in which an ex-champion can play until he's
65, the murderously tight fairways of the U.S. Open were never
designed to be memory lanes. With more than 7,000 golfers
clawing to get in, every spot is precious, particularly when as
recently as 1996 a sectional qualifier, Steve Jones, won the
The time seemed right for a no-Nicklaus stance, even if that
meant ending his amazing streak of playing in 152 consecutive
majors--including every U.S. Open since 1957. No one, including
the 58-year-old Nicklaus, was surprised when the USGA concluded
its recent annual meeting, the traditional time to announce
special exemptions, with no mention of the Golden Bear. The
tough guys had spoken by saying nothing. Since then, new USGA
president F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor has kept the door cracked open
for Nicklaus for a few more months, but realistically Jack's
chances of playing this summer in San Francisco are slim and none.
I think the USGA is making a mistake. Nicklaus still belongs in
the U.S. Open, and not only for this year. He deserves a
Forget the streak. The number is too fantastic--Nick Faldo has
the next longest current streak, at only 42 straight--and too
hard to remember. There are better reasons for Nicklaus to be at
First, he still has the game, and the majors bring out his best.
Even at the Open, where the merciless conditions expose his
weaknesses, Nicklaus's course management skills, age-defying
putting ability and enormous will make him a viable competitor.
Remember, in the last two Opens, Nicklaus finished 27th at
Oakland Hills and 52nd at Congressional. Also, in a Shell's
Wonderful World of Golf match last year at Olympic against
Johnny Miller, Nicklaus shot a par 70 that the vanquished Miller
called "classic U.S. Open-style golf." On a typical USGA setup,
where distance isn't vital, Nicklaus has proved that he can
Second, as long as Nicklaus is competitive, his presence carries
historical weight and offers the possibility of grand theater.
Although USGA officials love to clinically describe the Open as
an "examination," behind closed doors they salivate at the
remote but delicious prospect of having Nicklaus in contention
for a record fifth title. Such an occurrence would give their
championship the shot of glamour it lacks when compared to the
showy Masters and the worldly British Open.
Finally, Nicklaus should be included because he wants to play.
He's not being coy when he says he would accept a special
exemption, he just doesn't want to look as if he's asking.
Nicklaus is on the record about never wanting to be viewed as a
ceremonial golfer. Not only can the greatest player of all time
be trusted to know when it's time to quit, but he has also
earned the right to go out on his own terms.
If Nicklaus believes he still belongs, that's good enough for
COLOR PHOTO: LANE STEWART MATCHLESS By '78, Nicklaus had won 17 of his 20 major titles. [Jack Nicklaus with golf trophies]
Nicklaus still belongs in the U.S. Open, and not just for this
year. He deserves a lifetime exemption.