Joining the seniors in Arizona, Jack Nicklaus rediscovered the swing that once ruled the game
April 08, 1990

Jack Nicklaus, golf's newest senior, stepped back from his eagle putt, a meaningless 40-footer on the 18th hole that he could have played with a cactus and still have finished first. Then it became clear: He didn't want the Tradition to end. The man who went kicking and screaming into the 50-and-older ranks was enjoying himself so much that he wanted to prolong the moment of victory. He looked like a Bear with a bellyful of salmon. "I'm just going to enjoy this for a moment," Nicklaus told Gary Player, his closest pursuer, who trailed him by four shots.

Who could blame the man? He hadn't won a tournament since the 1986 Masters, the most recent of his 20 majors. He couldn't even remember the last time he had been in contention. He had arrived in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the $800,000 Tradition—which was played on the Cochise course that Nicklaus designed at Desert Mountain—with his golf game in shambles and his fellow seniors mad enough to douse him with Metamucil. With little to gain and a reputation to lose, he had risen, once again, to the occasion; he had pulled things together under pressure. It's what makes the great ones truly great. So a certain amount of savoring was in order. In five short days, the clock seemed to have been turned back at least 20 years.

Finally, Nicklaus stepped up to his putt and stroked it. The eagle bid lipped out, but he tapped in his birdie and finished with a final-round 68 to go with his first two rounds of 71 and 67 for a 10-under-par total of 206. Nicklaus joined Player, Arnold Palmer and George Archer, the only other men to win the first senior tournament they entered.

It wasn't so much that Nicklaus won the so-called duel in the desert against senior domo Lee Trevino. It was the way he won. Nicklaus was playing a different game from the rest of the field. If the first round hadn't been rained out and the tournament had been a 72-hole affair, as originally scheduled, Nicklaus might have won the Tradition by 10 shots instead of just four. He was striking the ball more consistently, with greater height and distance, than he had in years. "In 1980, when I won the U.S. Open and the PGA, I didn't hit the ball like this," Nicklaus said, half amazed. "You have to go back to the mid-'70s."

Nicklaus was singing a far different tune when he arrived at the Tradition. It was the first time since 1964 that he had committed to playing a tournament the week before the Masters. He missed the cut at the Tournament Players Championship two weeks earlier and, in his only other PGA Tour appearances this year, finished 68th at Doral and 61st at Pebble Beach. "I played 20 days in a row recently, and I got worse every day," he said on March 28. "I've been working with [teaching pro] Peter Kostis, and it hasn't been very successful. Either I haven't been able to absorb what Peter's been telling me, or Peter hasn't been able to get it into my head. I've been playing lousy."

The frustrating thing for Nicklaus, who has had chronic lower back pain in recent years, was that he was feeling healthy and practicing hard, without results. He had lost 15 pounds since turning 50 on Jan. 21, and his weight was a relatively svelte 185. A daily exercise regimen had kept his back condition from flaring up. Still, he was hitting golf balls all over creation. "I'm physically able to swing the way I used to," he said. "I just can't get myself to do it. I have to relearn my swing."

Enter Jim Flick, another well-known teaching pro. Flick followed Nicklaus during his practice round on Tuesday. After hitting an iron shot 50 yards off line on 17, Nicklaus turned to Flick and asked, "Jim, what do you see?"

"I'd never seen that look in Jack's eyes before," says Flick, who with Bob Toski founded Golf Digest's instruction schools. "His eyes were despondent. I told him, 'Jack, I don't see your swing.' He'd lost his aim. He was aiming right and was trying to use his hips instead of starting his swing with his feet. I just tried to return Jack to his original swing, to get his body and club in the same rhythm."

Nicklaus had relied on tempo and feel more than on mechanics when he was coached by the late Jack Grout, and Flick noticed that Nicklaus was swinging mechanically at the ball. "You can't feel your clubhead," Flick said.

"How do you know that?" Nicklaus said in wonder. "I haven't felt my clubhead in three months."

After following Flick's advice the next day, Nicklaus noticed an immediate difference. "I was still using what Peter Kostis had told me, but I was applying it in a less mechanical fashion," Nicklaus said. "That's the first round of golf I've played this year I didn't feel like exploding."

If Nicklaus had been sitting on a powder keg on the golf course, imagine how he felt the first time he walked into the locker room at Desert Mountain last week. In the January issue of Golf Digest, Nicklaus had spoken frankly and a trifle condescendingly of the Senior tour and its stars. "The problem for me," Nicklaus told the magazine, "is that the guys who are competing are the same guys I have beaten for 30 years." Then, citing Bob Charles and Orville Moody as examples, Nicklaus went on to say that most of the players currently dominating the Senior tour "were good players but marginal."

By "marginal," Nicklaus now says, he meant compared with the truly great players, the Palmers, Players and Trevinos. But the sporting press fanned the flames by approaching some of those "marginal players" for reactions. Dave Hill obliged by saying, "I used to have a lot of respect for Jack. But he forgot what humility was like."

A more typical response was expressed by Don Bies, last year's winner of the Tradition. "I don't think Jack thought he said anything wrong," Bies said. "He's having a hard time turning 50. I think that's part of his problem."

Since Nicklaus was the youngest player in the Tradition's field, he wasn't about to get any sympathy on that score. "Fifty is not a tough year," Palmer, who is 60, said, laughing. "As for Jack resisting it, the alternative is a helluva lot worse."

Nicklaus's remarks ruffled a few feathers, but not so badly that his fellow seniors weren't happy to see him and the more than 200 journalists who accompanied him. The Nicklaus presence on the Senior tour—and he says he will probably play five or six tournaments this year, including the PGA Seniors and the U.S. Senior Open—can only mean money, in the form of television revenues and corporate sponsorships, in every player's pocket. "There was a lot of tough talk in the locker room earlier," said Trevino. " 'I'm going to say this to him, I'm going to say that,' but there's too much respect for this man for any of that. To a man, everyone welcomed him aboard."

About the only person who wasn't happy to see Nicklaus join the seniors was Trevino's florist. The Merry Mex had had the good grace to send Barbara Nicklaus a dozen roses every week that her husband stayed home, and without Nicklaus to contend with, Trevino had taken the Senior tour by storm, winning $220,000 in just four starts before the Tradition—three wins and a second-place finish. Trevino led the seniors in five out of 10 statistical categories and boasted a phenomenal 68.33 scoring average. Does this man like playing with the "round-bellies," as he calls his fellow seniors? "This is the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on," said Trevino.

Well, it was fun until he attacked Cochise, a course that requires long, high iron shots similar to those that set up well at Augusta National. Long, high iron shots are not exactly Trevino's cup of salsa. The much anticipated showdown between Trevino and Nicklaus came a cropper when Trevino stumbled to an opening-round 75—his first over-par round this year—and followed that with two 72s. Even the dozen roses he received from Barbara Nicklaus didn't console him. Trevino left town complaining about everything from the cold, rainy weather to the footpaths at Desert Mountain, which he claimed had made his ankles sore. "I don't mind walking, but look what you have to walk through just to get to the fairway. Desert! I brought my snakebite kit with me."

"And now we get to go to Ooo-gusta," said his caddie, Herman Mitchell. The implication seemed to be that Mitchell would rather risk snakebite.

Nicklaus started out with a workmanlike one-under 71, which left him just two strokes behind the leaders after Friday's round. "I didn't think I'd be so apprehensive starting off," he said, fessing up to a case of the jitters. "I get like that in any new situation. It may sound funny, but I'll be a lot more relaxed next week at the Masters. Here, it's like I'm the new kid on the block. Show me."

If he had any doubts that it would be a little different on the Senior tour, they should have been dispelled on the fifth hole of the first day, when Bruce Devlin, who was in Nicklaus's threesome, had his left knee lock after he hit an iron from the fairway. Devlin could barely stand. Nicklaus went over and, after surveying the situation, grabbed Devlin's calf and jiggled it, trying to dislodge what Nicklaus diagnosed as a floating piece of cartilage. Eventually, Devlin was attended to by a real doctor and was deemed fit to continue.

During the rest of the round, Nicklaus tried to jiggle some life into his putter. By his own estimation, he misread eight greens during the round. But he drove the ball a ton. Using a new graphite driver he had borrowed from Jumbo Ozaki, Nicklaus smacked some tee shots that he would have been proud of 28 years ago, when he was the longest driver on Tour and was known as Baby Beef. On the par-5, 569-yard 8th hole, Nicklaus drove the ball 330 yards downwind. He reached the 534-yard 15th with a drive and a five-iron.

After the round, Nicklaus stayed out on the practice tee with Flick till dusk, cracking one long iron after another for 45 minutes after the other players had gone in. "It's better than it's been in a long time," he said, sounding more hopeful about his game than he had all week. "This might get fun again."

It did get fun again on Saturday, when, paired with Player and Charles, Nicklaus shot the low round of the day, a five-under 67. He played the par 5s in five under, missing three eagle putts in the process. It was like letting the club champion play off the ladies' tees. Nicklaus reached the 546-yard 4th hole, the 500-yard 12th, the 534-yard 15th and the 531-yard 18th in two shots each—two-putting for three birdies and eagling the 18th hole from the fringe to take the tournament lead from his old pal Phil Rodgers, who in 1980 had worked extensively with Nicklaus to improve Jack's short game. "That was rude," said Rodgers when he was informed that Nicklaus had chipped in to move into the lead.

But Nicklaus's most impressive shots were from 220 yards and out. He outdrove Charles and Player by 75 yards on some holes and hit long irons that flew so high and straight that "they floated down like a butterfly with no legs," Player gushed. "I've never seen him play better long irons.... I'll tell you, that guy can play. Somebody asked me yesterday, 'Do you think that Jack can still win on the regular Tour?' I said it was unlikely. Today I can say from firsthand experience it is extremely likely."

Nicklaus, whose goal is to become the first player to win on both the Senior and regular tours in the same year, was nearly as enthusiastic. "I never made any putts, and I still shot 67," he said. "That's the kind of golf I used to play. Five-under without putting stress on the putter. If I'm playing like this next week at the Masters, I'll be in contention."

There has probably never been a golfer better at holding on to a lead than Nicklaus, and on Sunday he showed that he still had the knack. Starting the day two strokes up on Player, Rodgers and Bruce Crampton, Nicklaus stuck a sand wedge within four feet on the 1st hole, to go to seven under, and never looked back. He bogeyed the 4th hole but came right back with a birdie on 5, where he took a batter's stance and whacked a seven-iron to within 12 feet of the cup after his drive had come to rest on a mound. "The round could have got away from me right there," he said. "That was probably my best shot of the day." Nicklaus added four more birdies and a bogey, and finished unchallenged.

The Bear enjoyed his debut on the Senior tour, and it reinforced his belief that he can still put a scare into the kids when he's on his game. "There's going to be a time when I say goodbye to the regular Tour and come out here more," he said after receiving the $120,000 winner's check and the trophy. "But I don't want that time to be yet. We'll see how I play the next few weeks."

What are the odds on a 50-year-old man's winning the Masters? Says Nicklaus (no smile): "I think my chances are pretty good."

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINPrickly as a cactus about turning 50, Nicklaus soon relaxed. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINNicklaus took the lead for good when he chipped in for eagle at the 18th on Saturday. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINLong after the others had left the practice range, Nicklaus worked while Flick watched.