When David Duval shot Jack Nicklaus's age a couple of weeks ago,
I considered it a public service, a reminder that we're not
getting better, we're getting older. Time passes. Reality bites.
Nicklaus is 59. Tom Watson is pushing 50. Michael Jordan has
This is an article from the Feb. 15, 1999 issue
Where did the years go? Time remains undefeated, untied and
ranked No. 1. Except in golf. While Jordan was announcing, Stick
a fork in me, I'm done at 35, Nicklaus was undergoing hip
replacement surgery, in part so that he could continue playing
tournament golf. Nicklaus could be fishing, tracking his mutual
funds or clapping the lights on and off while watching Walker,
Texas Ranger from bed. Instead he's plotting his comeback at the
U.S. Open at Pinehurst, in June, and looking forward to the year
2000 and beyond.
Nicklaus and 69-year-old Arnold Palmer, who is still a fixture
on the Senior tour, remind us that pro golf is the game of a
lifetime. But I wonder, Is that a good thing?
Jordan's retirement, and all the publicity that rightfully
accompanied it, is something we'll never see in golf. In golf,
if you're successful on the regular Tour, you get a free pass
for life when you turn 50. It's like a pension plan, only you
have to keep playing.
Golf lacks closure, which is just as well because most golfers
don't know when to quit. Well, some did. Byron Nelson was only
34, and coming off his best year, when he opted for life back at
the ranch. Bobby Jones retired for much the same reason as Jordan
did: The thrill was gone. Most golfers, though, keep playing long
after their prime.
Too bad. Imagine if some of the giants had gone out on top.
Picture this: Ben Hogan calls a press conference after the 1967
Masters, in which he shot a 66 in the third round to surge into
contention. He walks into a room packed with reporters, stands
in front of a knot of microphones and says simply, "I'm away,"
before tipping his cap and limping into the sunset. That
would've been sweet. Instead, Hogan's competitive career ended
ingloriously during the opening round of the '71 Houston Open,
when he was 58. Hogan wrenched a knee trying to play a shot out
of a ravine, shot 44 on the front nine, then picked up a few
holes later and rode in on a cart.
Johnny Miller should have quit the day after he outdueled Tom
Watson to win the '94 Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That would've
underscored a memorable day. Instead Miller couldn't resist
teeing it up in a few Senior tour events. Too late. The world
was there to see that Johnny can't putt--at least not without
Most of the rest have kept right on going. At least Bob Charles
and Gary Player have won in their 60s. Lee Trevino has talked
about retiring many times but can't seem to pull the trigger.
Palmer finally retired from the British Open in 1995, at St.
Andrews, waving goodbye from Swilcan Bridge. Of course, few
remembered that Palmer had said, back in 1990 at St. Andrews,
that that Open would be his last.
Palmer will never quit. If he gave up tournament golf today, he
would be on the 1st tee at Bay Hill tomorrow looking for a game.
He's still an amazing player, for his age, but watching him
scrape it around the way he did last month at the Hope isn't
much fun. Arnie's strictly a ceremonial golfer now, which is not
how we want to remember him.
Jordan did it right. He didn't grow old on the court. He'll
always be a highlight reel in our memories. That's not the way
it is for our golfing heroes. We watch them play even when
they're eligible for Social Security. Nicklaus has joked that if
he had been smart, he would have retired when he was 46, after
his miracle at the '86 Masters. He has won a pile of money and a
bunch of Senior tournaments since then, and as recently as last
year, when he tied for sixth at Augusta, he has created a stir
in the majors.
With his new hip, what does the future hold for the man we call
the greatest player ever? It's easier to figure what it doesn't:
a retirement plan.