"A spot of golf in Southampton" is what the weekend guest
expects on Long Island, worked around the shopping and dining
and perhaps a bit of croquet on the lawn. The tone is relaxed,
the wardrobe varied. That noted sportsman J.W. Nicklaus, for
instance, showed up Thursday afternoon in a blue-billed baseball
cap, as if he had just stepped off his yacht. A gentleman of 55
with reddish-blond hair and a good tan, Mr. Nicklaus owns a
Florida-based sports-equipment company and designs golf courses
in his spare time. He was accompanied by his lovely wife, the
former Barbara Bash, and two of his grown-up sons, Gary and Jack
Judging from the familiar waves and shouts of encouragement he
received, Nicklaus was no stranger to the Shinnecock Hills Golf
Club. He was the guest this time of the United States Golf
Association, which thought he would be a nice addition to the
155 professional and amateur golfers competing in the annual
Open tournament. Nicklaus had played in 38 straight of these
events -- which is some sort of record -- but,
uncharacteristically, he was not qualified to enter this year.
Fittingly, the USGA extended him an invitation anyway ("special
exemption" is the term it uses), and he accepted with alacrity,
golf being his best game.
Those who followed him around the links on Thursday had to be
impressed with his ability to keep up with the younger chaps who
play golf for a living. Driving accurately and hitting more
greens than was seemly for a man his age, he shot a one-over-par
71. And the golf course, we must add, was more of a test than
usual, due to its fast greens and knee-high grass. From time to
time a spectator shouted, "Jack is back!" or "One more time,
Jack!" Of course, such yelling on the links is frowned upon, but
Nicklaus nodded modestly and smiled, leaving it to his hosts to
correct the unmannered. In the meantime, his playing partners --
Andy North of Madison, Wis., and Ian Baker-Finch of Sanctuary
Cove, Queensland, Australia -- received the full measure of
courtesy from Nicklaus, who led the spectators in polite
applause when they hit particularly fine shots.
A Hamptons weekend, of course, can begin on any day of the week.
On Tuesday evening, Barbara and Jack were dinner guests in a
tent erected outside the home of Jack and Nancy Whitaker of
Bridgehampton. After cocktails (Mr. Nicklaus drank cranberry
juice), the Whitakers served up Long Island duckling followed by
strawberry shortcake. Nicklaus got into an animated discussion
with David Marr, the retired golf professional who now works in
television for NBC. It was Marr's contention that Nicklaus
golfed better years ago because of a "forward press" with the
hands and a little trick he had of turning his head slightly to
the right at the start of his swing. Nicklaus seemed totally
absorbed by Marr's comments. Before long the two men were
canting their heads like eagles and addressing imaginary golf
balls, to the amusement of the other guests.
June 25, 1995
The next day Nicklaus tried out Marr's tip in a practice round.
Afterward he announced, in that wonderful way golfers have, that
he had hit his drives "considerably longer ... and considerably
straighter." But whatever arcane adjustments he had made to
produce Thursday's fine first-round score came undone on Friday.
Four bogeys on the front side put him five over par for the
tournament, and from there it got as bad as weekend traffic on
the Montauk Highway. By the 15th hole Nicklaus's mouth was a
perfect drooping curve, and he was shaking his head and staring
at the ground. On the 16th hole, which is a twisty par-5 through
dunes and tall fescue, his second shot went so far left that the
rough covered him to his waist, making him almost invisible in
his olive-colored polo shirt against the background vegetation.
A big swing produced a shot that came out low and then nosed
down like a diving kite into a steep-faced bunker, 50 yards on.
And then Nicklaus was invisible, as even his head couldn't be
seen once he entered the bunker. A deliberate player, by most
accounts, he nonetheless exploded out of the sand with great
haste, betraying some embarrassment. He finally reached the
green in five strokes and wound up making 7.
In sum the USGA's guest ended up with eight 5s and a 7 for a
discouraging round of 81. That score, even with his first-round
71, left him six shots over the total he needed to qualify for
the weekend rounds. Nonetheless, the hundreds of spectators
surrounding the 18th green greeted Nicklaus with sustained
applause and whistling as he climbed the last hill with his
putter under his arm. As a four-time winner of the tournament,
he clearly held a special place in their hearts. It was
whispered in the gallery that his tap-in on 18 might even be his
last stroke in a U.S. Open, but knowledgeable observers said
this was unlikely because he would almost certainly be invited
back for a more proper send-off.
Sentiment, it turns out, is among the criteria for inclusion in
these events. The Masters and the PGA Championship, two
tournaments of similar prestige, extend their former champions
an invitation for life, while the British Open welcomes back
former winners to the age of 65, at which time they are required
to sit in overstuffed chairs and tell stories. The USGA invites
its champions back for 10 years, but after that it puts the
matter into the hands of its championship committee, which
decides whether to bring back players who would otherwise be
ineligible. Last year the committee invited five players,
including 65-year-old Arnold Palmer, raising questions about
fairness and the quality of the field. But Palmer warmed hearts
in his farewell appearance.
"Through the years we've been pretty stingy about exemptions,"
Judy Bell, who chairs the championship committee, said last
week, "because, after all, it is an Open championship. If you
don't open it up, it defeats the whole idea." Ms. Bell, who is
expected to become the first woman president of the USGA when
Reg Murphy steps down in January, added that she had voted for
Palmer last year not knowing that it would be his last Open.
"Arnold made that decision," she said at Shinnecock, looking
official but not officious in shorts, a blue windbreaker and
tennis shoes. "As for Jack, there's not been any discussion of a
ceremonial goodbye. Who knows? He could very well play his way
Nicklaus needed to finish in the top 15 at Shinnecock to qualify
for next year's Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, near
Detroit. Now, his best hope is to win the U.S. Senior Open,
which is to be held next week at Congressional Country Club in
Bethesda, Md. The winner of that tournament gains automatic
entry to next year's U.S. Open, and as a two-time Senior Open
champion, Nicklaus will be one of the favorites.
He will not, however, try to make next year's Open field by
entering one of the sectional qualifying events held the week
before the tournament. "No," Barbara Nicklaus said emphatically
as she followed her husband around the course on Thursday.
Guest lists, of course, are always a topic of interest in the
Hamptons. At the Whitakers' tent party, the Nicklauses shared a
table with the Marrs (Dave was accompanied by his wife, Tally)
and the Bowdens (author Ken and wife Jean), while at the next
table novelist Dan Jenkins and friends celebrated the birthday
of his wife, June. At Shinnecock, however, Mr. Nicklaus was
given the seat at the card table, so to speak -- going off at
2:15 Thursday afternoon. Pairings at the U.S. Open, one is told,
are often meant to send a message, and Mr. Nicklaus was sent out
this time with a former British Open champion whose control and
confidence have vanished (Baker-Finch) and a two-time U.S. Open
champion whose eligibility was about to run out (North). Short
of placing KICK ME signs on their backs, the innuendo couldn't
have been less subtle.
Nicklaus seemed not to notice. After signing his scorecard on
Friday, he lingered outside the wood-shingled clubhouse annex to
give the handsome Baker-Finch a 15-minute golf lesson; he then
approached a throng of journalists with an amiable, "Hi, boys."
Most of the ensuing chat centered around how badly he had
played, with Nicklaus recounting his mishaps and the writers
asking questions in deferential tones. "I was a little more
vertical than I like," Nicklaus said, lapsing into golfing
jargon. "What I was doing yesterday, I think was correct. I just
don't think I knew what my parameters were." He finally
shrugged. "It's been this way all year. I shoot one decent
round, and the next round is terrible. I don't know which guy's
going to show up." Indeed, at the Masters, Nicklaus's opening
round of 67 was followed by a 78.
The spectators, judging from their enthusiasm, weren't
particular. On Thursday afternoon the grandstand on every hole
emptied after Nicklaus's group putted out. Even on Friday, with
half a day's golf remaining, his finish had the 18th-hole
bleachers rattling, as spectators headed for the stairs after he
For Nicklaus, unfortunately, the weekend was spoiled. The USGA
was in no hurry to see him go, and there was Saturday's
centennial parade in Bridgehampton to look forward to -- the one
marking the 100th anniversary of the village fire department.
But Mr. Nicklaus thought he would take his private plane home to
North Palm Beach (where the social season has long been over)
and then fly up to Maryland on Monday for a practice round at
Congressional. Asked if he would watch the rest of the U.S. Open
from his hammock, he smiled and said, "I don't watch much golf
Left unresolved was the question of whether he would be invited
back. "I would like it not to end with an 81," he told his
journalist friends. And if that wasn't enough of a hint, he
added that he would "love to play" in a Farewell Open, whether
he was still competitive or not. "If I play next year, it would
be number 40," he said, as if thinking of it for the first time.
"It would be a nice round number."
And with that, Mr. Nicklaus made his apologies and left. The
rest of the weekend, though, was hardly dull. The buzz in
Amagansett was about a remarkable young croquet prodigy on
holiday from Stanford, one Eldrick Woods, who performed amazing
feats with mallet and ball while playing one-handed....