Saturday, June 17, 2000

Hard to say goodbye to Jack


But Nicklaus' time is up

daugherty
        PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — We're lousy at goodbyes, especially to our sports heroes. The players we follow growing up mark our passage as surely as the calendar. Their decline mirrors our own.

        So did we feel sadder for Jack Nicklaus on Friday? Or for ourselves?

        He played his last round of golf at the United States Open. He left no doubt about that. Nicklaus' second-round 82 left him 13 over par after 36 holes. After he was done, Nicklaus looked like Willie Mays in 1973. Unless the United States Golf Association offers him a special exemption from missing the cut, Nick laus will be watching the golf today, with the rest of us.

        It's hard to say which was more touching Friday: Jack battling for 27 holes (he had to play the nine that were fogged out Thursday) or the galleries respecting him for it. Respecting him for everything, actually. Tiger Woods is here and now, and he is wonderful. But Jack Nicklaus is golf.

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Nicklaus feigns amazement after reaching the 18th green in 2.
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The Bear mocks himself after leaving his eagle putt 8 feet short.
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Nicklaus dabs tears as he says goodbye to the U.S. Open.
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        “Best of all time,” they said over and over, as Nicklaus toured the Pebble Beach Golf Links one last time. It's his favorite golf course, the place where he won his second U.S. Amateur title in 1961. On Friday, Nicklaus played with reigning amateur champion David Gossett. Gossett beat him by five shots.

        “One more year,” they said.

        “Thanks for everything.”

        “Don't go.”

        Along the 1st fairway, Nicklaus glanced at every well-wisher. “Twenty years ago, Jack,” someone yelled, a reference to Nicklaus' last Open victory. Nicklaus looked over after that, allowing himself a little, wistful smile.

        But it is time to go. The USGA has given Nicklaus eight special exemptions to this event. There would be few complaints if it extended it to a lifetime pass. Who would you rather watch? A no-name itinerant PGA Tour-ist? Or someone who raises the hair on your neck?

        But Nicklaus is done. That's what Friday's round should have told him. He didn't make any birdies. He didn't even have any birdie chances. His tee shots kept finding the rough. It is hard to spin a ball hit from the rough, especially U.S. Open rough. Without backspin, Nicklaus couldn't keep his approach shots on the greens. They hit and ran through.

        “I felt like I was playing with a marble on a pool table,” he said.

Nicklaus never sentimental
        At the par-3 5th — a hole he designed — Nicklaus made a double bogey, yanking his tee shot and flubbing a flop shot. That left him in the rough 4 feet from the green, with a shot that was delicate-bordering-on-jewel-thief. He cracked it 12 feet past the hole.

        Nicklaus doubled No.8, too, starting a sad, frightful run between Nos.8 and 17 in which he was 8 over par. At nearly every hole, the scene was the same: Nicklaus missing the fairway off the tee, missing the green from the rough, chipping poorly and putting twice for bogey.

        We're sparing with the sentiment here, because Nicklaus is not a sentimentalist. There's not much violin music when Nicklaus is around. After the round, when someone asked him to describe what the Open mean to him, Jack typically went technical.

        “The total examination of the game of golf,” he said.

        Yeah, OK, Jack. But what about the four titles? The four second-place finishes? The friendships, the memories, the fans? “It probably does more to make a man out of you than any other tournament,” Nicklaus decided.

Time froze, briefly
        Well, all right. Nicklaus was never emotional as a player. It might have taken from his legendary focus. He was not Arnold Palmer. Then again, on Friday, he played like Arnie in his later years.

        That's why he needs to hang it up at the Open. There is no need to watch the best player ever shoot 80 day after day, simply for the pleasure of seeing his face. Golf is not a wax museum.

        That's why Friday's round of appreciation came with a bit of grieving. As poorly as Nicklaus played, you kept hoping for a little magic that could somehow reverse time 20 years. Or at least stop it for a moment.

        It finally happened on the 543-yard, par-5 18th. Nicklaus' tee shot landed in the center of the fairway, some 230 yards from the pin. The galleries lined the rope, from tee to green. Behind the green, the grandstand was jammed. Nicklaus asked his caddie, son Jackie, for his 3-wood.

        “I haven't tried to knock it on this green in 20 years,” he said.

        Nicklaus swung. Time froze, then reversed. His ball landed in the neck of short grass in front of the green, then bounced on, 35 feet from the hole. On in two. The roar moved the water on Stillwater Cove.

        In the group behind, Tom Watson asked his caddie Bruce Edwards for a towel, for his eyes.

More than a few tears
        Nicklaus got to the green, pointed at his ball and then to himself, as if to say, “My ball? Here?” Then he dabbed at each of his eyes with a stubby forefinger. Quickly, so as not to arouse attention. Again, when Gossett flopped a shot onto the green, Nicklaus wiped his eyes. Maybe he thought everyone would be looking at the amateur.

        The eagle putt finished 8 feet short. “I topped the putt. My eyes were blurry,” Nicklaus said. The birdie try missed by inches. Nicklaus tapped in for par, and 40 years was done.

        We're lousy at goodbyes and no better at mortality. Jack Nicklaus bid adieu to the best golf tournament in the world Friday. There's a little less to applaud today.

        He won the Open four times, the last time in 1980. We all were younger then.

        Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at (513) 768-8454. Fair Game, a collection of his columns, is available at local bookstores.

U.S. Open coverage from Associated Press
Local golf coverage at Cincinnati.com/golf



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