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Augusta Gets One More Bear Hug

Couples kissed. Strangers hugged. Women in heels threw elbows
for position. Fifty-eight-year-old Jack Nicklaus had just
birdied the 15th hole on Sunday to get within two shots of the
Masters lead, and all heaven was breaking loose.

One man yelped as he sprinted, "This is the most fun I've ever
had in my life!"

"Me, too!" hollered his buddy.

"No!" yelped the guy again. "Not just on a golf course! Ever!
This is the most fun I've ever had in my whole life!"

"I said," hollered his buddy, "me, too!"

The best kind of gifts are the ones you didn't even know you
needed. Last week America got a wonderful gift: one more loving
look at the greatest golfer who ever lived, maybe the greatest
winner in sports history. Yeah, he's a little hunched over now,
and he has a left hip that probably needs replacing, but there
he was, limping right out of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf and
onto the leader board.

"Jack, you think you got a 65 left in you?" somebody asked him
on Saturday night, when he was six shots out of the lead.

"Oh, I got at least that much in me," he replied. "I just hope I
don't have any more than that."

Out he came, Old Saint Nicklaus on Easter morning, birdieing
four of the first seven holes and tilting the course so much his
way that everybody else was left with MCI galleries--friends and
family. In the group ahead of him, Tiger Woods was learning what
it's like playing next to a tornado. "There were so many roars,
we had to back off, like, every shot," Woods said after Sunday's
round. Imagine that.

All this can be blamed on Nicklaus's lousy hearing. Augusta
National officials had declared Tuesday to be Jack Nicklaus Day,
but somehow he heard week. They dedicated a plaque to him on a
drinking fountain near the 16th green, and he even cried. But
the problem was he didn't understand the Augusta National Plaque
Policy, which is that when you get one, it means you're long
since done, you're toast, you're the toast being toasted, and
you're supposed to shake everybody's hand, shoot 79-81-160 and
disappear, like a good, little legend. When they gave Gene
Sarazen a plaque, he shot 83-80-WD. When Arnie got his, he shot
79-73-Cessna home. Do you realize that when Ben Hogan and Byron
Nelson were 58, they'd already quit playing Augusta?

Well, why not? It was what everybody expected--even Nicklaus. A
month before, he'd said this could be his last competitive
Masters. He might come again, might not, but he'd never be
serious about it again. Hell, the USGA had just given him a kind
of plaque--a three-year exemption to the U.S. Open, the first
multiyear walker in USGA history.

Problem is, "The guy never acts his age," grumbles his
son-caddie, Steve. Jack is forever betting his sons he can ski
faster, catch more fish, sink more free throws than they can. He
has this obstacle course in his backyard. The idea is to act
"exactly like you're five years old," Jack says. He's out there
climbing tires, hanging from bars, doing push-ups, hop-overs and
Bear crawls. What's 58 divided by five? Ageless?

So, against all sense, here he was on Sunday, turning America's
most reverential course into the world's greenest mosh pit. At
one point, playing partner Ernie Els signaled for a pair of

If Nicklaus had sunk just a few more putts on Sunday, he'd be
your Masters champion right now, and you might still be trying
to get your father down from the roof. A birdie left on the lip
at 8. A bunny missed by an inch at 9. A blown three-footer on
12. A downhiller that came up an Efferdent short on 18. He wound
up losing by four to the winner, Mark O'Meara, who had 10 fewer
putts and hit 10 fewer greens. Nobody's been this old and
straight since Lawrence Welk. As it was, Nicklaus finished
sixth, whipped all four 1997 majors champions, became the oldest
man to finish in the top 10 at the Masters and reminded us all
how nice it would be if he never went away at all.

He will, though. He has always said he wouldn't be a walking
piece of old newsreel. "If I do go out," he said on Sunday, "it
was a nice way to do it."

Fine. Except, did you notice something? On the plaque? At the
bottom? They left an inch or two there, just enough for a union
engraver and a hopalong hero allergic to calendars.


Nicklaus turned America's most reverential course into the
world's greenest mosh pit.