At 7:15 on Sunday evening, Air Bear barreled down the runway of
Tampa International Airport. In his seat aboard the Gulfstream
IV-SP, Jack Nicklaus sipped ice water from a plastic cup, looked
across at his wife, Barbara, and smiled. It was like old times
for the Nicklauses. Jack was heading home a winner.
From one of the eight cushy leather seats in the cabin, Hale
Irwin raised a cup of Diet Coke. "Well, Jack, if I had some
champagne, I'd toast you," he said.
"If I had some," Nicklaus replied, "I'd drink it."
They were making the 23-minute flight back home to West Palm
Beach after Nicklaus came from five strokes back to win for the
99th time as a professional. On this occasion it was the GTE
Suncoast Classic, against the strongest Senior tour field of the
young season. Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Lee Trevino, Tom
Weiskopf--the guys Nicklaus used to take on in the 1970s and
'80s--were all at the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay at
Cheval, battling wind, cold and, ultimately, the greatest player
the game has ever known. Nicklaus whipped them all, shooting
68-67 on the weekend for his ninth Senior tour victory. What
made the win particularly sweet was that it came just six days
after Nicklaus, in a news conference, had admitted that he was
ready to end his record streak of consecutive appearances in
major championships. It also came at a time when he was full of
February 26, 1996
On the Thursday evening before the tournament, in the TPC
parking lot, Nicklaus sat on the edge of the trunk of his car,
turned both palms skyward, shrugged his shoulders and tried to
explain how a bunch of grinders he used to dust with regularity
were now taking him to school. In the season-opening Tournament
of Champions, Nicklaus had finished tied for sixth behind the
likes of John Bland, Jim Colbert and Graham Marsh--the "marginal
players" he used to stare down on the 1st tee. Now Nicklaus
seemed to be the marginal player. He no longer bombed
intimidating tee shots past the other players. In fact, just
weeks before, he had finally set aside the old, persimmon-headed
MacGregor three-wood that he had carried for 38 years and used
in each of the 18 majors he won, opting for a graphite-shafted,
metal number in an attempt to gain back lost yards. Once the
most dominant force in all of golf, he had not won, not even on
the Senior tour, in almost 10 months. During that stretch he had
lost two close decisions, the kind he usually won, to Weiskopf
in the U.S. Senior Open and to J.C. Snead in the Senior Players
"I'm somewhere between respectable and lousy," Nicklaus said.
"When you're hitting it all over the world, it doesn't matter if
you're here with the seniors or on the regular Tour. I am so
frustrated about the way I'm hitting the ball."
Those who have followed Nicklaus's career probably could have
predicted what would happen next. Backed into a corner and
complaining, Nicklaus found just enough game to work himself
into contention and then let his instincts take over. And no one
has a better instinct for winning. Of course, it didn't hurt
that some of the contenders played as if they were auditioning
for a part in Dead Man Walking.
Poor play was predictable last Friday, when a wicked front blew
into Tampa and turned the weather raw. Colbert, last year's
Player of the Year, made a five-footer at 18 to break 80. Floyd
was not so lucky. He shot 80. Marsh made a nine and shot 84,
which was topped by Harold Henning, who made an 11 during a
round of 88. Al Geiberger, who had won the previous week in
Naples, was the only player to shoot par 71. It was so cold and
windy that at one point Geiberger sought refuge in a portable
toilet. Luckily, it was not the one that blew over on the 15th
It was the kind of day that Nicklaus has come to dread, and one
reason that he probably will pass on July's British Open and let
the consecutive major streak come to an end at 138. When he's
layered in sweaters and a turtleneck, his backswing, which has
shortened with age, gets even shorter. "With a lot of clothes
on, I just can't get it back," he says.
Sloppy bogeys on three of the last four holes turned what could
have been an acceptable 73 into a beastly 76. That night at
dinner Barbara killed Jack's appetite by asking, "When was the
last time you opened with a 76 and won the tournament?" The
answer was never.
The weather improved on Saturday, and so did Nicklaus. He made
seven birdies during his 68 to jump all the way from 29th into a
tie for second, five strokes behind Isao Aoki, one of his
favorite whipping posts, past and present. Nicklaus and Aoki go
back to the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, where they played
together all four days as Nicklaus won his fourth national
title. As recently as last March, Nicklaus had taken the measure
of Aoki by birdieing the third hole of sudden death to beat him
in the Tradition. Despite this history, Aoki, who after the
second round was the only player under par, said he was looking
forward to another crack at Nicklaus.
Big mistake. By the time the threesome of Aoki, Nicklaus and Bob
Murphy, who also started the day in second, had reached the back
nine on Sunday, the record crowd was stampeding behind Nicklaus.
"That sounded like the old days," the Bear said. Slowly Aoki's
five-stroke lead melted to one, and then, at the 345-yard 13th,
the second shortest par-4 on the course, Aoki's circuits, as
they always seem to do against Nicklaus, overloaded. After
driving into the water, Aoki left his third shot short of the
green. A good pitch would save bogey. In the locker room Gary
Player, watching on TV, barely got the words "Isao Aoki is the
greatest player I've ever seen from 100 yards in" out of his
mouth when Aoki skulled four shots back and forth across the
green before two-putting for a quintuple-bogey 9.
"Bob Murphy and I were both in shock," Nicklaus said later. "We
looked at each other like we couldn't believe it."
Murphy, who won the Royal Caribbean Classic earlier in the
month, had an equally bizarre experience on the 7th hole.
Hitting a sand wedge from a fairway bunker, Murphy's ball
ricocheted off the lip of grass just above the sand and hit his
panama hat. That's a two-stroke penalty. "I don't know if it was
the ball that actually hit me or some sand," Murphy said, "but I
couldn't live with myself if I didn't call it." Murphy rallied
with three birdies, but the penalty strokes turned out to be the
difference between a playoff with Nicklaus and a third-place
It was unprecedented weirdness. "I saw something I've never seen
before," Murphy said. "Two guys in the last group on Sunday made
an eight and a nine."
That left only Snead, who shot a 65 despite a double-bogey 6 at
the 16th. When Nicklaus flew a seven-iron over the 18th green,
Snead jumped from the couch in the locker room and headed to the
practice tee. However, Nicklaus, using his putter, hit his ball
up and over a swale, leaving five feet for the victory. Any
predictions? "This is what this guy lives for, this moment right
here," said Weiskopf, observing the scene.
Nicklaus hunkered down over the ball, played the break inside
the left lip and knocked it dead in the heart. A moment later
Snead burst back through the locker room door. He had heard the
roar on 18 from the range.
On the short flight home across Florida, Nicklaus no longer
looked tired. He looked restored. Even at 56, winning will do
that. "I feel like I'm 25," he said.
Look out world, Jack is back. Again.