Say Good Night, Jack Jack Nicklaus missed a golden opportunity to bow out gracefully

March 30, 1998

Just because you're invited to a party doesn't mean you have to
accept, which is one way of saying I think Jack Nicklaus should
have declined the kind invitation of the USGA to participate in
the U.S. Open. Before I list my reasons, let me hasten to
mention that no one is a bigger Nicklaus fan than I am. Well,
maybe Barbara. But I have been observing Jack at Opens from
Pebble to Oakmont to Baltusrol, 30 years' worth. No golfer has
provided me with sweeter memories.

But now those memories--the one-iron to 17 at Pebble in 1972,
the birdie-birdie finish at Baltusrol in 1980--are blending with
less heroic, even sad ones. Nicklaus, thicker in the waist, an
appreciative smile on his face, walks slowly up the 18th fairway
to applause reserved for legends. But no cheers, the kind we
heard so often when he ran one in from 30 feet. His name is not
on the leader board. Sometimes his ball is not even on the green.

It's true that Nicklaus has made the cut in the last two Opens,
but tying for 52nd, as he did last year, is not what the man is
all about. It's as if Ted Williams, now 79, came back and hit
.243, a remarkable feat only in relationship to his age. What we
want to remember is Ted's .406 in 1941 or the home run he hit in
his final at bat.

So it should be with Nicklaus. Between 1960 and '82, his vintage
years, Nicklaus had four victories in the U.S. Open, four
seconds and 10 other top-10 finishes. If you wanted to win the
Open, you had to get by Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and
Tom Watson won four Opens among them, and Nicklaus was second in
them all. We want to remember the Nicklaus who for more than two
decades was always a factor, always the man to beat, not the
player who tied Paul Broadhurst last year.

In private moments some years back, Jack used to wonder why his
friend Palmer continued to compete long after his skills had
clearly eroded. He himself, Nicklaus suggested, would never do
such a thing. He would know when it was time to retire. Arnold
finally called it a day when he was 53, returning only once to
the Open, on a special exemption to Oakmont in '94. Yet here is
Nicklaus, 58, still on the dance floor years after the music has
stopped.

An Open without Nicklaus would not deprive us of other
opportunities to watch the aging warrior in action. There is, of
course, the Senior tour, though even in that arena Nicklaus is
beginning to look long in the tooth, not having won in two
years. There are also those Silly Season activities, the Wendy's
Challenge and the Senior Skins, the latter of which has long
realized it can't exist without him and Arnie.

Finally, there is the Masters, which offers lifetime exemptions
to its former champions. Nicklaus and the Masters are
intertwined, and it's at Augusta National that he can best
remind us of his past glories. The man plays the course like a
burglar picking a lock in the dark. Over the past 14 years he
has finished higher in the Masters than in the Open 12 times and
has a win, two sixths and a seventh.

Had the USGA decided against offering Nicklaus a freebie to the
Open, it would have been doing him a favor. It would have ended
the Streak, Jack's run of 41 straight Opens and 152 consecutive
appearances in the majors. The fear here is that Nicklaus has
become infected with Ripkenitis, an infatuation with one's own
longevity. Nicklaus has said that he never wants to be a
ceremonial golfer, but he has become just that. When the USGA
extended him an invitation not only to Olympic but also to
Pinehurst next year and Pebble Beach in 2000, Jack accepted in
less time than he takes to play a par-3.

Pebble in 2000 was always a given. Everyone knew that Jack would
be invited back for that one. He has always said that if he had
only one more round of golf to play, he would choose Pebble
Beach on which to play it. In addition to three Crosbys, he won
the Amateur there in 1961 and the Open in '72. Talk about
knowing how to play a course. It is fitting that Jack, age 60,
should return to Pebble. I hope to be there to cheer him on,
though I'd rather it be as an encore. The curtain should have
come down this year.

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Nicklaus has said that he never wants to be a ceremonial golfer, but he has become just that. [Jack Nicklaus]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)