Losing, Bear-ly Gary Nicklaus just missed in his bid for a first Tour win, but in his loss to Phil Mickelson at the rain-shortened BellSouth Classic he showed a lot of his father's grit

April 09, 2000

Standing on the 16th tee of the TPC at Sugarloaf on Sunday
afternoon, Gary Nicklaus was living a science fiction fantasy.
How do you erase 15 years in an instant? In this case one
well-struck eight-iron would do the trick. Nicklaus, a
31-year-old Tour rookie, was in the midst of a sudden-death
playoff with Phil Mickelson. A rainstorm had swept through
Duluth, Ga., earlier in the day with enough force to wash out
the final round of the BellSouth Classic. Tied for the lead at
11 under par through 54 holes, Nicklaus and Mickelson were
shuttled out to Sugarloaf's par-3 16th under orders to produce a
champion.

Mickelson hit first on the downhill 163-yard hole, producing a
gorgeous draw that spun to a stop 18 feet from the cup. All eyes
were now on Nicklaus. He went through a series of languid
practice swings, his serenity seemingly unruffled. In those blue
eyes there was a familiar focus and no fear. Mickelson had
played a nice shot, but it takes a lot to impress Nicklaus. He
beat his father, Jack, on a golf course for the first time when
he was 15, several years after the old man had predicted his son
would better his record of 18 major championships. When Gary was
16, he was the subject of a breathless cover story in SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED that billed him THE HEIR TO THE BEAR. Pressure
Nicklaus was used to.

He finished his practice swings and settled into his shot.
Standing over the ball, he was--at 5'10", 180 pounds--a near
replica of his father, right down to the forest of blond hair
covering his powerful forearms. Of Jack's four sons, Gary bears
by far the strongest resemblance to his father. Though both wear
size 9 1/2, Gary could never fill Jack's shoes; yet he alone
among the Nicklaus boys has had the temerity to try. Passing on
the comfortable life of working for one of Jack's myriad
companies, as his brothers all have, Gary turned pro in 1991. He
would bomb out at Q school eight years in a row, being forced to
take his famous name and forgettable game overseas, to Africa,
Asia, Australia and Europe. When he was home, Gary played the
Florida mini-tours, a nobody named Nicklaus struggling to earn
gas money on, of all things, the Golden Bear tour. Through all
the hardships and indignities Nicklaus pressed on, pursuing golf
with as much passion as his father had, if not with the same
results. Year by year his game got better, his resolve stronger.
Last fall, after his first full season on the Buy.com tour, then
known as the Nike tour, he kicked down the door to the PGA Tour
with a final-round 63 at Q school, securing his card. Now here
he was in only the 10th tournament of his rookie year, perhaps
one good eight-iron from completing his remarkable journey.

Nicklaus's swing has all the power of his father's, if not the
precision. He caught his shot a tad heavy, but the ball whistled
into the distance, dead on the flag. Standing behind the tee
box, Rick Smith, the extroverted instructor who works with both
Nicklaus and Mickelson, shouted, "He stuffed it!" Two more feet
and he would have. Instead, Nicklaus's ball, and with it his
chance of victory, landed with a thud in the front bunker, only
six inches from a fat lip. It was an impossible lie, and he
could do no better than bounce his second shot backward into a
better position. He blasted his next bunker shot long of the
hole and watched in vain as Mickelson coolly rolled in his
birdie putt for his second victory of the season, a $504,000
check and a ton of momentum heading into this week's Masters.

Jack Nicklaus is not only golf's greatest champion but also its
classiest loser, and here, too, Gary seems determined to emulate
his father. "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day
would be Christmas," Nicklaus said. "This is a big milestone for
me. I proved to myself I belong out here and that I can win at
this level."

The events of the playoff brought a sudden end to what had been
a week of cresting intrigue. Nicklaus had limped into Duluth
having missed five of nine cuts, with a 28th at the Honda
Classic his best finish of the season. The day before the
BellSouth, he was fooling around at the driving range and
decided to try relaxing his right arm on his takeaway. This
magically freed up his action, and during the first round he
struck the ball, in his word, "perfect," hitting all 14
fairways, eagling the 541-yard 4th hole and shooting a 68
despite a pair of three-putts. On Friday, Nicklaus played a
wildly entertaining round, making five bogeys, six birdies and
yet another eagle when he holed out a 115-yard pitch on the
par-5 6th hole. (It was his ninth big bird of the season, tops
on Tour.) With a 69 Nicklaus was three back of the midway
leader, Joey Sindelar, and one behind Mickelson, who opened
67-69.

That evening Nicklaus spoke with his father, as he so often does
while on the road. Jack was in Scottsdale, Ariz., playing a
tournament of his own, the Tradition.

"He talked about course management and missing shots in the
right place and not short-siding yourself," says Gary, who has
the softest of voices and the same gentle manner as his father.
"I'm like, yeah, that's great, if you hit the ball where you
want to all the time. When I am hitting the ball my best, I
probably hit it as good as he did. But he hit it that good all
the time."

On Saturday, Gary bogeyed two of his first three holes. Standing
on the 4th tee, he could all but hear the old man whispering to
be patient. He made birdie on the hole and added another birdie
two holes later to make the turn even par on the day. That's
when all heaven broke loose. Nicklaus chipped in for birdie on
the 10th hole, rolled in birdie putts on 11 and 12, and then
drove the green of the 310-yard par-4 13th, two-putting for his
fourth straight birdie and a share of the lead with Mickelson.

Back in Scottsdale, Jack was on the 13th hole when play was
suspended due to inclement weather. Informed of Gary's surge, he
made a beeline to the players' dining area so he could monitor
the telecast with his wife, Barbara. When an announcement was
made calling for a restart in half an hour, Nicklaus's
competitors began heading to the range, but Papa Bear didn't
budge. Twenty minutes later he was still in front of the TV, the
only player left in the room. "I was sitting there thinking, Can
I afford to be late and take the two-stroke penalty?" Nicklaus
said. "I'd much rather take the penalty and get to watch Gary
play 18 with a chance to take the lead."

After Gary hit his drive on 18, a par-5, Jack reluctantly headed
back to the 13th tee. Barbara stayed to watch Gary's finish and
postround interview. "He reminds me so much of his dad," Barbara
said, still sitting in front of the TV. "A lot of his hand
movements and facial expressions and some of his phrases--he
looks and sounds like Jack."

Back on the course Jack was suddenly looking very much like
Gary: Without a warmup he birdied his first two holes after the
delay. "I was charged up," he said. "I said, Hey, if my kid can
do it, I can do it."

Barbara rejoined her husband on the 16th hole, and he veered to
the ropes for the update. "He had to lay up on 18, but then he
hit it to six feet," Barbara said, and Jack brightened. "Then
his putt lipped out." Jack grimaced and headed back to the
fairway.

That miss was even more painful for Gary. "I knew the forecast
and that there was a chance we weren't going to play [on
Sunday]," he said. "I really wanted to make birdie." Mickelson
also stumbled coming in, blowing a 2 1/2 footer for par on the
17th hole and then taking three strokes to get down from just
off the 18th green, which resulted in a disappointing par and
set the stage for Sunday's tiebreaker.

"I can't do anything but be a nervous parent," Jack said before
the final round. "Like all of those years that Gary sat on the
sidelines and rooted for me, I'm going to sit on the sidelines
and root for him." Nicklaus doesn't hold his son's game to the
same exacting standards he does his own. He offers unconditional
support, unchecked enthusiasm.

The playoff in Duluth had been announced but hadn't begun when
Jack started his final round at the Tradition. "My stomach was
in knots," he says. Barbara, as always, tromped along with her
husband, but on the 11th hole she got word that Gary's playoff
was imminent. She ducked into a tent to watch the telecast. When
the announcer mentioned the sudden-death format, Barbara, ever
the optimist, said, "It should be called sudden life."

As Gary hit his shot, Mom intoned, "Good swing." As the ball
landed in the bunker, she shook her head and said, "O.K., we'll
just sink our bunker shot."

When it was over, Barbara remained upbeat. "It's his first time
there," she said. "Now it's back to Dad. He'll know what
happened the minute he sees me." That came as Jack was readying
to tee off on the 14th hole. Spying Barbara, he backed off his
drive to regain his focus. After ripping one down the middle, he
swerved over to commiserate, and Barbara gave him a
blow-by-blow, followed by a reassuring kiss on the cheek. "At
least he was there," Jack said. After hitting his approach to
the 14th green, Jack wandered back over to Barbara. "How much
did Gary make?" he asked. "A little over $300,000," Barbara said.

"That puts him in pretty good shape to keep his card," Jack said.

Gary, too, was looking ahead on Sunday afternoon. "If I've
learned anything from my dad over the years, it's patience and
perseverance," he said, standing amid the melee behind the 16th
green. "I think it's finally starting to pay off."

After an endless series of congratulatory handshakes Gary fought
his way to the clubhouse. There he nibbled on a chocolate chip
cookie and chewed on his long road to success. He told a funny
story about a European tour Q school in Spain, where his luggage
got lost, and he had to buy new clothes every day for a week.
Sharing in the laugh was Nicklaus's fiancee, Heather McDonough,
whom he met while both were attending Ohio State, the setting
for Jack and Barbara's courtship 40 years earlier. Finally Gary
and Heather jumped into their courtesy car and sped off toward
the future. As they were pulling out of Sugarloaf, McDonough
handed Nicklaus a cell phone. One proud father was awaiting a
call.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY E.M. PIO RODA LIP SMACK Nicklaus's second shot in sudden death caught the face of the bunker and stayed on the beach. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND MOM'S AWAY Barbara, with Jack in Scottsdale, took a TV timeout from the Tradition only to see her son fall short. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY E.M. PIO RODA MICKELSON (left, with wife Amy and daughter Amanda) seized his second win of the season and a ton of Masters momentum.
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)