Jack will be back
As displays of emotion go, it was somewhat muted. Maybe you can attribute that to age. Jack Nicklaus is, after all, 64 years old. And maybe it was the occasion. He hadn't won anything other than a small piece of pride, having gotten up and down from the bunker on Muirfield Village Golf Club's final hole to post an under-par score of 71 in the final round of the Memorial Tournament in what may be (but probably won't be) his final round of competitive golf. He rolled in the nine-footer for par, the way he almost always seems to roll in the putt on the final green, no matter what it's for, then raised both arms in quiet triumph while bowing his head (thus ruining the moment for photographers).
No, it wasn't the dash across the 16th green at Augusta National after holing that improbable putt in the 1975 Masters, or the raised putter and quick-step when he sank that stop-the-presses putt at 17 in the '86 Masters, but for Jack, who was never into the histrionics that made Arnold Palmer such an icon, it was more than usual. He knew the potential significance of the moment on Sunday.
"I would like to know I shot under par," Nicklaus said later. "If I play again, then it won't make any difference. If I don't play again, at least my last round was under par. I had a chance to shoot a pretty darn low round, but I messed it up."
That's one of the good things about Jack. He understands the significance of important moments. And he knows himself.
He first started talking retirement at the Masters this year but nobody took him too seriously, writing it off as his usual missed-the-cut disgust with his game. But now he's saying this might really be it, that he has no plans to play any more tournaments this year. No Senior majors, nothing.
But Jack is Jack. While Arnie is a golf junkie who will never give up playing the game, whether it's a tournament or a 1 o'clock automatic one-down press at the club, Jack is hooked on winning and the thrill of the competition. He's been talking about walking away from the game since the mid-1980s, and hasn't denied the "is-this-your-last-Open?" questions since the early 1990s. He's the boy who cried wolf and he knows it.
He'd like to go out on a high note but there's always another high note to hit. When he heard from CBS' Jim Nantz that he was the second-oldest player next to Sam Snead, to make a cut, he asked how old Snead was. Told Snead was 67 when he made his oldest cut, Jack joked, "Then I'll be back here when I'm 68."
It's unlikely that the Memorial was Nicklaus' last appearance at a tournament. Or, as one photographer who regularly shoots the tour joked, "Is this the 50th anniversary of his first retirement?"
For starters, Nicklaus will almost certainly show up at next year's British Open at St. Andrews. He loves the course and the town, he loves the tournament and, of course, he famously won there. He almost has to show up. He'd been talking to Peter Dawson of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club about its scheduling the 2006 British Open at the Old Course and told Dawson it was too bad he wouldn't be able to play because he'd be 66 and the British Open has an age limit of 65 for entrants. Dawson asked if Nicklaus would play if the date were switched to 2005. Jack said yes, he'd definitely consider it. The R&A changed the Open rotation for him, moving next year's event to the Old Course in order to accommodate Nicklaus. It was quite a gesture of respect. Rest assured, Jack will tee it up at the Old Course and walk over the Swilcan Bridge at least one more time.
Then there's the Masters. Jack has said he doesn't want a farewell appearance like Arnie had this year. But the thrill of that course and that tournament will draw Nicklaus back. Bet against him showing up at your own risk.
Then there's next year's Memorial. It's Jack's tournament, he knows people want to see him play. He's one of the reasons the loyal Ohioans buy tickets and, hey, he made the cut at 64. No reason he can't do it at 65, too. He has been talking about not wanting to turn into a ceremonial golfer, but the truth is, he's already been one for at least five years. He can use rounds like that closing 71 to trick himself into thinking that he's not a ceremonial golfer. He talks like a retiree, saying he knows he can't win anymore, he can't compete like he wants to, but you get the sense that he's trying to convince himself more than he really believes what he's saying.
"I just shot 71 and found out exactly where I should be -- fishing," he said Sunday in the Memorial pressroom while waiting for Ernie Els to come to the winner's press conference. "I played well and shot 71 and any of those guys on the leaderboard, they'd be chewing nails if they shot 71 in the last round. That's not going to win any tournaments."
It was a nice accomplishment, anyway. Nicklaus finished 63rd in the Memorial. "I beat my age," he joked. He continues to beat the aging process, too. He says he probably won't be back but, hey, he's Jack. There's St. Andrews next year.
He'll be there.