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Alone In His Field Jack Nicklaus upstaged a Senior major by ending his streak, and an era

In the end, the biggest surprise was that he didn't win the damn
thing. After four remarkable decades in golf, Jack Nicklaus had
us taking two things for granted: He will play forever, and he
will play his best when the world is watching. Sadly, neither
presumption holds any longer, as Nicklaus made official last
week at the Senior Players Championship. The day before the
tournament he finally yielded to the inevitable, announcing his
withdrawal from this week's British Open, thus ending his record
streak of playing in consecutive majors for which he was
eligible at 154, including the last 146 in a row.

The bones in Nicklaus's left hip have long been engaged in a
nasty sort of tectonics, grinding away his ability to practice
and compromising his incomparable swing. In recent months the
dysfunction has grown more acute. Still fiercely proud at 58,
Nicklaus decided that he was no longer interested in showing up
at Grand Slam events if the objective was simply to not
embarrass himself. The degeneration of Nicklaus's hip has been
known for years, but despite the many hints that he has dropped
about ending the streak, the announcement was a stunner. "Are
they even allowed to hold a major without Jack?" asked Jim
Albus, voicing the collective dismay.

Having become the No. 1 topic of conversation throughout golf,
Nicklaus, as always, was eager to make a statement on the course.
At the TPC of Michigan, in Dearborn, a course he designed, he
opened with a cool 67, just one back of leader Hale Irwin. "The
[announcement] has taken a big weight off me," Nicklaus admitted
after the round. Last Friday a birdie at the 5th hole shot him to
the top of the leader board, and knowing looks were exchanged in
the locker room, the pressroom and among the fans.

No athlete in any sport is as self-aware of his legend as
Nicklaus is, and considering the emotion of the week, it seemed
almost inevitable that he would produce one more victory for the
ages (never mind that Nicklaus hasn't won a Senior tour event
since the 1996 Tradition). Unfortunately, the renaissance lasted
only five holes. On the par-4 10th, Gil Morgan holed a wedge for
eagle, leapfrogging over Nicklaus into the lead. For Jack, it
was a slow fade from there. On Saturday he made seven birdies,
but because of some uncharacteristic sloppy play, he shot an
even-par 72. With no chance to win on Sunday, he shot an
indifferent 70, finishing at nine under, 12 shots behind Morgan,
who won with a course-record 267. "This is not the end,"
Nicklaus said gamely, but it sure felt that way. At the very
least, it felt like the beginning of the end.

Next week Nicklaus will tee it up in the U.S. Senior Open, at
the Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles, but beyond that, his
playing future is uncertain. (Last week Nicklaus also withdrew
from August's PGA Championship.) "I don't intend to play the
rest of the year," Nicklaus said at last Wednesday's press
conference. He talked about wanting to spend more time with his
eight grandchildren, wanting to properly rehabilitate his hip
and, finally, wanting to escape the oppressive responsibility
that comes with being Jack Nicklaus during those four weeks of
the year when he strolls the tightly mowed memory lanes that
double as the fairways at the majors. "What I have had to do to
prepare has consumed me on almost a 24-hour basis, and I have
never been consumed by anything before," he said.

Nicklaus would have been content to end his streak at 153 after
this year's Masters, in which he tied for sixth, but in March
the USGA offered a three-year exemption into the U.S. Open, and
he felt obliged to accept it. He's already talking about next
year's Masters and Open, at Pinehurst, N.C., and he still has
every intention of playing all four majors in 2000, a year of
probable swan songs as the U.S. Open visits his favorite course,
Pebble Beach, and the British Open returns to St. Andrews.

How the Olden Bear is going to whip himself into shape for those
championship courses remains a question. Last week he seemed
amenable to having the hip replaced, and he has sought the
counsel of George Archer, who has had both hips surgically
redone. But Nicklaus also said, "I would first like to continue
with the Egoscue method and see how that progresses." He was
referring to Peter Egoscue, the Southern California physical
therapist with whom he has worked since the mid-'80s.

Reached at home in Del Mar last week, Egoscue said flatly,
"[Nicklaus] is not going to have a hip replacement. It's not
joint pain that he is suffering from, it's muscular pain, which
is very good news for Jack because it is eminently treatable.
Look, he can play for as long as he wants if he commits himself
to the rehabilitation." According to Egoscue, Nicklaus has a
muscle imbalance in his torso, with the left side being
dominant. Egoscue says it was this condition that also led to
the herniated disk that had Nicklaus pondering retirement in
1987. "The reason the left hip is breaking down is because it
has been doing all the work all these years," Egoscue says. "The
condition is not golf-induced, it's lifestyle-induced." Nicklaus
has long been under orders to do exercises and stretches
designed to strengthen his right side and improve his balance,
but only recently has he displayed any vigilance. (He was late
to his historic Wednesday press conference because he was stuck
in the fitness trailer.) "We've held [Nicklaus's condition] at
bay all these years; we've never had the chance to cure it
because he hasn't had the time to devote," Egoscue says. "I'm
encouraged because I think that's going to change now."

If the rehabilitation is within Nicklaus's control, it would be
unwise to bet against a full recovery, especially with his noted
ability to impose mind over matter. (In 1967, for example, when
he wanted to lose weight, Fat Jack ordered some suits that were
two sizes too small.) The big winner in all of this could be the
Senior tour. With a retooled hip and a playing schedule no
longer built around the Grand Slam events, Nicklaus says he
would be eager to make up for lost time among his
contemporaries. "I haven't supported the Senior tour to the
level that I think I should," he says. "I'd like to do that." In
fact, Nicklaus decided to skip the British Open in part because
he wanted to be rested for the Senior Open. "In this time of my
life I'd like to win the U.S. Senior Open." he says. "That's
probably more important to me right now than competing in the
British Open."

Nicklaus's star power is a boon for any tournament, but the
Senior tour can get along just fine without him as long as
Morgan and Irwin continue their rivalry, which is the best in
golf. At Dearborn they stalked each other throughout the
weekend, with Morgan's insanely hot putter proving the
difference in his three-shot victory. Sunday marked the sixth
time since the start of the '97 season--Morgan's first full year
as a Senior--that Irwin and Morgan have been paired in the last
group for the final round. Each man has now won three times.
Despite Morgan's hefty $300,000 haul in Dearborn, he still
trails Irwin by nearly a quarter of a million dollars in this
year's money race. In other respects, though, Morgan has already
eclipsed his rival, the 1997 Senior player of the year. This
season he has won four tournaments to Irwin's three, and two
majors to Irwin's one. (Lee Trevino, in '92, was the last Senior
to win more than one major in a year.)

Morgan and Irwin have always sought to soften the nature of the
competition between them, but at the Senior Players things got
downright silly. Just minutes before the start of the third
round they romped around the 1st tee locked in a mortal duel
with water guns, a little bit of theater that the crowd spooned
up. No sooner had they signed each other's scorecard at the end
of the round, with Morgan a stroke in the lead, than the pistols
were redrawn and the water fight spilled into the pressroom.
(Feeling particularly sophomoric, Irwin asked one matronly
reporter if she was interested in participating in a wet T-shirt
contest. She wasn't.) "We're so uptight around here we can
hardly breathe," Morgan said.

On Sunday, Irwin played well, but he couldn't keep up with
Morgan's breakneck pace. Morgan birdied the 1st hole and never
let the lead slip below two, three times topping an Irwin birdie
with one of his own. Following his 66, which had been preceded by
rounds of 69, 64 (tying the course record) and 68, Morgan seemed
strangely subdued. "Lot of tension out there," he said softly,
betraying for the first time the intensity of the weekend.

He also knew better than to get too excited about his heroics,
since no one else was going to. This had been Nicklaus's week all
along, and Morgan knew it. "Oh, well, at least it's Jack who's
stealing the headlines," he said. "That's not bad company." Even
the vanquished had Nicklaus on the brain. "I don't think we have
heard or seen the last of Jack Nicklaus," Irwin said. Whether or
not that was wishful thinking remains to be seen.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY LYONS A NEW PATH Free from the all-consuming majors, Nicklaus's plan calls for more time with his grandchildren and on the Senior tour. [Jack Nicklaus]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY LYONS SPIN DOCTOR Morgan gained an edge on his rival, Irwin, by winning his second major of '97. [Gil Morgan]

"At least it's Jack who's stealing the headlines," Morgan said.
"That's not bad company."